The Moving Crew

Achieving Balance

(Julia Ewan - Twp)
By Lennie Magida
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hey, you over there. Yes, you, 30-something, practicing run-ups. And you, 40-something, working on arm strength. And even you, sweet 16, on the soccer field. I have a question for all of you: Are you doing any balance exercises?

I'll bet my Bosu you think balance is largely a concern for old ladies with fragile hips. (Don't know what a Bosu is? We'll get to that.) Boy, are you missing out. Balance training is a hot buzz-phrase in the fitness world, linked to core stability and functional fitness. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) included it among its top 10 fitness trend predictions for 2007.

That's not just hype, according to Makenzie Mazin, a physical therapist at Professional Sports Care and Rehab in the District. "Balance is an important piece for improving performance, and it's very protective," she says.

And not just for the old-bone set. "Whether you're running, doing a layup shot in basketball or kicking a soccer ball, you're balancing on one foot," says Timothy E. Hewett, director of the Sports Medicine Biodynamics Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "And most people, including athletes, have significant balance deficits, especially on one leg."

That matters, he explains, because "if you can do something equally well on both sides, you'll be a better athlete."

You say you're no athlete? Well, just as martial arts competitors can floor off-balance opponents, everyday objects can do the same to you: the curb when you're rushing for a bus, the ladder when you're pruning shrubs, the stairs when you're carrying a loaded laundry basket. Conjure up a slo-mo image of yourself walking, and you'll realize every step involves balancing briefly on one leg. "If you don't have good balance, you're going to be injured, I guarantee it," says Steve McClure, a Pilates instructor in the District. "Balance is one of the most important and most underemphasized aspects of fitness."

Checking your balance takes all of 80 seconds, Hewett says. Stand on one foot for 20 seconds. Change feet. Now do the same thing with your eyes closed. (This makes the exercise tougher because you've removed a source of information for your brain.) Count how many times you touch the raised foot down. Chances are, you did it more on one side than the other.

You might feel pleased that one side is strong and stable. But Hewett says a dominant side ultimately "undergoes more force, more repetition, more risk. And the non-dominant side is weak." Research shows that, after puberty, this is a greater problem for women.

Don't be dismayed if you find the test hard. Bethesda personal trainer Carla Rosenthal asks her clients to try standing on one leg, "and you'd be amazed how many can't."

But Rosenthal says her clients improve quickly, and Hewett agrees that better balance is gratifyingly easy to attain.

"You can train just the way you test," he says. Stand on one leg for 30 seconds, then switch. Do that three times on each leg, two or three times a week. Improvements are likely within a few weeks, Hewett says, because "these issues are neural in their control, not muscular, and neural patterning happens more quickly." (What you're working on, besides balance, incidentally, is proprioception -- the brain's unconscious sense of the body's position relative to objects around it. It's what enables us to ski down a bumpy mountain -- or drive without staring at our hands and feet.)

If single-leg stands on the floor become too easy, progress to a more uneven, less stable surface -- a grassy field or a log. Indoors, try a cushiony Airex Balance Pad, a wobbly balance board, or a Bosu (short for both sides up), which looks like a large blue exercise ball cut in half and placed (usually) flat side down. Still too easy? As you stand on one leg, move the other.

Do squats (don't let your knee go forward past your toe). Bend to pick something light off the floor and, still on one leg, return to upright.

Later, try those moves on a Bosu. Also, on one leg or on your equipment, move one or both arms up, down, forward, back. Always, Mazin cautions, be sure "to keep your body aligned and not let your knee move inward."

The more movements you introduce, the more planes you are working through, and the more your body will have to make constant, minute adjustments to stay balanced. Hewett suggests making your balance routine part of your warm-up.

At whatever level you work, you'll gain better body awareness and a body that's more stable and efficient. Who said it's hard to achieve balance in life?

Lennie Magida is certified as a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise. She is a writer for Special Olympics. Join her in the Moving Crew's online fitness discussion today from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Can't make it? Write to us

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