The secret to improving balance
Balance can often be neglected as an element of fitness, but it is vital and one that becomes increasingly important as we age. At its most basic, balance is the ability to remain upright and steady. Good balance decreases the risk of falling, so the older we become, especially if we also allow ourselves to become frail, a loss of good balance substantially increases the potential risk of bone and joint breakage.
As we age we can also lose our ability to catch ourselves if we do happen to stumble; this skill, as well as being able to remain steady and upright, requires good motor function and control – essentially being able to switch on muscles instantly. Retaining such abilities and fighting off the onset of frailty brings big rewards, helping to avoid increased risk of hospitalization and even earlier moves into residential care facilities.
The best way to improve balance
My preference is free weights, as this requires fixing yourself into the movement, rather than being fixed into a single position. This enforces enhanced ‘reaction’ with the ground, in turn helping to build new neural patterns between your brain and muscles, which will improve motor control and function.
Balance is of course extremely important in weightlifting, but the point of resistance training to improve balance does not require excessive weights. As we are finding out due to research into the wider benefits of resistance training, it is not necessarily about building big muscles – it is about actively engaging muscle, making sure it is used and not allowed to atrophy – while the additional physical and mental benefits result from the active engagement of the muscular system.
Targeted instability training is favoured by some, and certainly worth investigation. Typically, this where the subject stands on an inherently unstable surface, such as a Bosu ball (also known as a ‘blue half ball’). It is often assumed this type of training will improve balance by helping people adapt to unbalanced surfaces. However, it has not been proven to help build more balance. This is not to say it doesn’t help with conditioning people to what it might be like on the pitching deck of a yacht, but this is different to directly improving actual balance and it is accepted that further study is needed.
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