There’s a short list of things you’re likely taking advantage of right now. But don’t worry, we’re not judging; in fact, just about everyone does it. It’s only normal to breathe or blink without thinking about it, and we don’t notice our sense of balance until it’s not working like it should.
Balance is an underrated principle of our everyday functioning. It keeps you upright, allows you to walk without assistance and helps prevent injury. But there are a variety of things that can reduce our sense of balance, from both an internal and external perspective.
We spoke with three medical professionals for their expertise on the importance of balance and what you can do to stay off the ground and seeing straight.
The Complexity of Balance
Simply explained, a good sense of balance allows us to recognize our position relative to other objects around us, including the surface on which we are standing, walking, or running. According to Caroline DeGroot, a physical therapist and the vestibular program manager at Athletico Physical Therapy, balance is an important aspect in carrying out both simple and complex movements.
“It allows you to perform everyday activities you may take for granted, like walking in open spaces without objects to hold onto or turning to talk to a friend while walking,” DeGroot said.. “Balance also makes it possible to negotiate steps or curbs without a rail, walk on grass or sand, and step over obstacles.”
And while it may be apparent when someone has particularly good (or bad) balance, there is actually much more happening internally than what we can see on the outside. Balance is maintained by the vestibular system, a small organ in the inner ear, and it can be negatively affected when the organ is damaged or not working correctly. This can happen number of ways, but the most common sources of declined balance are external substances and the aging process.
“I commonly see people come in after falling secondary to alcohol intoxication or the use of other illicit substances,” Dr. Akram Alashari, a trauma surgeon and critical care physician in Myrtle Beach, S.C, said. “These substances can cause dizziness, lightheadedness and vertigo, (along) with the potential to sustain injuries.”
It’s certainly no secret that excessive intake of alcohol and illicit substances can quickly lead to balance issues while they are in your system. However, chronic alcohol abuse can lead to irreversible disequilibrium that can have lasting negative effects on your balance.
In addition to alcohol and drugs, certain medications can also cause dizziness, vision problems or lightheadedness, which all play a role in your sense of balance. While sometimes a single medication causes imbalances, the combination of multiple drugs taken together are more commonly the issue.
But external substances aren’t the only cause of balance loss. As we age, balance becomes more of an issue as our critical systems begin to weaken. According to Dr. Nathan Wei, director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md., the aging process is typically associated with visual impairment, inner ear problems, cerebellar (posterior brain) issues, muscle weakness or peripheral neuropathy. And unfortunately for the elderly population, these systems all play a critical role in your body’s ability to stay vertical.
Because older people are more likely to take medication to control health problems, this group is doubly at risk for poor balance from sources they both can and cannot control. Dr. Alashari explains that decreased agility can interact with the cumulative effect of chronic medical illnesses and the side effects of medications, producing an overall decrease in one’s sense of balance.
Maintain and Improve Your Balance
Luckily, there are things you can do to improve your sense of balance for the long haul, and they can be done by anyone, regardless of age or ability. As a physical therapist, DeGroot creates environments to help patients through individualized exercise programs that address specific balance deficits. She pinpoints three exercises to strengthen the muscles that come into play for good balance:
Standing Knee Raises: Stand with one hand on or near a chair or table. Lift one leg slowly with your knee bent 90 degrees to hip height and maintain upright posture, with assistance from the counter as necessary. Keep your abdominals tight and hold position for 5-10 seconds, then repeat with your other leg. This exercise helps recruit core muscles and improves single leg balance.
Standing Toe Tap: Stand in front of a step or step stool. Slowly lift your right leg and slowly tap the step before returning it back to the floor. Try this without making any noise when touching your right leg to the step. Repeat with your left leg. Progress this exercise by looking straight ahead, not down at the step.
This encourages weight shifting, muscle control and single leg balance, which are all necessary for safe walking and stair negotiation.
Hallway Walk: Walk down a hallway or on a track. Try taking 3-4 steps looking over your right shoulder, then look straight ahead for 3-4 steps, then look over your left shoulder for 3-4 steps. If you are able to do this without stumbling, progress to looking over your right shoulder and then your left every 3-4 steps without looking straight.
Dr. Alashari cites diabetes and hypertension as being common conditions that cause poor balance, so it’s important to manage the symptoms that come with these illnesses.
“Tips to improve balance in the long run include maintaining tight glucose control for patients who have diabetes and good blood pressure control in patients with hypertension,” he said.
He also urges the importance of maintaining compliance with all medications and reporting any symptoms to your doctor such as dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea.
Dr. Wei recommends paying attention to visual deficits that can impact your spatial awareness compared to objects around you. Studies have shown that as vision decreases, balance scores begin to decline, so it’s important to address and correct visual impairments as they arise.
Working on your balance might not be top of mind until it has become a serious issue, and by that point, you could be on the ground. But improving your equilibrium can be easy by simply adding balance exercises to your workout regimen routine and paying attention to potential sources of balance impairments.
Erica is a runner, gym rat and outdoor buff based in Austin, Texas. She is a lifelong athlete, having participated in a number of sports from her youth years well into her adult life. Erica has a passion for creating and sharing information, motivation and inspiration to help athletes-in-training across the world. She previously worked as the Running Editor at ACTIVE.com (find her articles here), where she connected with runners of all levels to help them reach their running and fitness goals. You can follow Erica on Twitter or Instagram.
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