Last week we mentioned balance as crucial to your overall fitness. But most of us neglect balance training. It's time to right the ship.
"Whether you are stepping off a curb, running on rough terrain or standing on a moving subway, your body needs to react," said Paul Mossa, a trainer and balance expert at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. "Normal movements require balance and stability."
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Your body controls its stability via vision, the vestibular system (located in your ear) and proprioception (a network of muscle-nerve-brain communications). Damage to any one may impair balance.
But assuming no damage, aren't we naturally inclined to stay in balance, without training? No, Mossa said. Most people become less stable as they age because they challenge their bodies less and, as a result, tighten up.
"Your body will only give you as much mobility as it can control," he said. "If it senses any instability it will cut off that range of motion. But you can increase it with balance training."
Jake Westhoff, who runs the Fitness Image Results personal training program at Gold's Gym in Van Ness, calls balance and stability work "probably the most important aspect of training, because you use your inner core for almost everything you do -- sitting, standing, moving, running." Core strength is essential to balance because your center of gravity is grounded in your core. In other words, stronger core, better balance.
Awareness of the importance of balance is rising, Westhoff says, as evidenced by the proliferation of related gear in gyms -- bosu balls, stability discs, wobble boards and the like. "But overall this is still very neglected by trainers."
A bosu ball looks like half a stability ball mounted on a small platform; wobble boards are small pedestals with rounded bottoms that prevent the board from lying flat. Such gear is designed to challenge your ability to stand in balance. Standard fitness balls, when used as a base for strength and stretching exercises, add balance work to the effort. Mossa and Westhoff agree that the earlier you start balance training the better, but both note that you can catch up at almost any age. So, how to begin?
First, test your balance: You should be able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds without hopping or touching anything with your arms or your other leg.
Can't do it? Practice twice daily -- eight to 10 attempts -- until you can. Next, do the exercise with your eyes closed, forcing your body to depend on the vestibular and proprioception systems.
The next level: Envision yourself standing in the middle of a clock face, with 12 o'clock directly in front of you. Take one lunging step with your right foot out toward 12, put your foot down and hold the lunge position. Retreat, then take a similar step slightly to the right toward 1:30, then far to the right at 3:00, then onto 4:30 and 6:00. Then do the same with your left foot back and to the left at 7:30, directly left at 9:00, up to 10:30 and finally up to 12.
"Most people are good to the front and back," Mossa said, "but bad to the sides . . . and most injuries occur in these lateral planes" -- when slipping sideways on ice, for example. If you cannot do the steps, stand on one leg and hold the other leg out toward each clock position.
Don't fear the balance gear in the gym: It's supposed to make you unstable, so seek some instruction from a trainer and see how much you can improve week-to-week. This will not only better your balance but also increase your core strength. And these exercises are easy to add to the end or beginning or end of a workout.
If you get really good, stand on one leg, perform a half-squat and hold the position while logging on to the Moving Crew chat this Thursday, 11 to noon, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/health/movingcrew. You'll find our answers to your questions fair, if not always perfectly balanced.
-- John Briley