The body's balance: Use it or lose it

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Most of us are walking a tightrope, balancing work in one hand and family in the other. But how many people actually think about balance in its true physical form?

We're usually focused on increasing physical endurance, gaining strength or just getting through our daily tasks. Although better physical balance is often overlooked, it can help us to achieve these other goals.

Without balance, our bodies are more susceptible to injury, and not just because of falls. "Even young, active people forget the importance of balance and end up with shoulder or knee problems due to a lack of core strength," says Steamboat Springs physical therapist Susan Ring.

"Without a stable base, everything has to work harder. When one area of the body is weak, another takes over."

Balance should be a concern at every age because it can prevent injuries to ankles, shoulders, knees, elbows and wrists. When your ability to balance is compromised, other muscles compensate for the weakened core. Misuse or overuse of those muscles can lead to complications.

What exactly is balance? It's an ever-changing situation in which our body's postural and core muscles respond to input from our eyes, ears and special nerve endings called proprioceptors. The more these muscles are put to use and challenged, the greater our ability to balance.

It's a simple concept. Use it or lose it. The most effective way to maintain or improve your ability to balance is to practice.

Most of us start to lose our ability to balance as we grow out of childhood. The playful physical actions we participated in then kept our bodies challenged and well-balanced. Hopscotch, skipping, walking the line are activities that require integration of the balance system.

Now that our physical activities are more about purpose than play, our bodies are not as automatically steady and stable. You can discover how balanced you are by taking this simple test:

Stand at your kitchen counter with feet positioned closely together. Use good posture -- stomach tight, eyes focused forward. Rest your hands lightly on the countertop to give extra support, if needed. Move your head slowly from side to side. Now try the same thing while standing on one leg.

Did you sway or put pressure on your arms? How long could you maintain the position? Notice all of the muscles that came into play.

Try the exercise again and chances are you will feel changes in your body's reaction. Holding the position for a greater amount of time, moving your arms less, or a decrease in the amount of trunk sway are all indicators of improvement in balance.

With repetition, your body becomes more familiar with the process and your ability to balance improves. When trying these other methods of putting a little more balance in your life be sure to work in a safe range for you:

n Stand on one leg while doing a simple task such as doing the dishes or making copies. Make sure to alternate legs, and use the counter or copier to steady yourself, if needed.

n Walk heel-to-toe down a straight line in your home. Make it a regular habit whenever you cross that spot.

n When watching television, go to the counter during commercial breaks and practice the head movement described above. When this exercise becomes easy, add arm movements to increase difficulty.

n Add a little play into your day. If you lead an active lifestyle, alter your activities to include things you would have done as a child. Take cues from children around you. For example, do a little rock-hopping on your next hike.

These may seem like trivial tasks, but what to do you have to lose? We could all use a little more balance in our lives, however we may find it.

Heather Rose has a degree in exercise science and is public relations assistant

at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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