We are born with flexible, balanced bodies but our actions and postures during the formative ages govern its balance as an adult. A study published in October in the Frontiers In Neurology journal found that the system that helps us keep our balance begins going downhill after the age of 40. Using data on the number of deaths caused by falls in 2010 and 2011 in the US, the researchers estimated that problems with the vestibular system after the age of 40 contribute to more than 57,000 deaths each year.
The vestibular apparatus present in the ears provides sensory information about motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation. Balance is important not just because it helps reduce the risk of falls, and hence injuries, but also because it helps us do our daily activities well. “Body balance is a well-orchestrated combination of the skeletal structure, muscular system, central nervous system and ears, and one’s ability to concentrate and be aware,” says Dhananjay Gupta, director and senior consultant (orthopaedics and joint reconstruction) and replacement surgeon at the Fortis Flt Lt Rajan Dhall Hospital in Delhi.
Balance and equilibrium involve continuous coordination between all these systems. Problems with any one of them starts affecting the other. For example, problems with the hip will start affecting your knees and ankles and the back. “It’s akin to a marching unit in the army. One person out of sync, the whole parade gets out of gear. That’s why it’s recommended to treat the patient as a whole rather than region-wise, like ENT or neurology or only orthopaedics,” adds Dr Gupta.
Agrees Nisha Varma, Reebok master-trainer. She says she herself grappled with severe balance issues after she twisted her ankle during a morning run in 2006. She saw a doctor who put her through a series of physiotherapy sessions; the pain vanished but she realized she had lost her ability to balance. “Simple everyday activities like wearing clothes, socks, shoes suddenly became a challenge. Running was also shaky, so I couldn’t do that for a long time. Balance training is directly related to real-life benefits—better balance means better mobility, greater capacity to push oneself harder during workouts, and a lower chance of exercise-related injuries,” she says.
Being in the business of fitness she understood that neuromuscular coordination had to be brought back through therapy and exercise. She opted for Tai Chi, Pilates and yoga to improve coordination and improve core strength alignment and balance. For one year, she did mainly aqua aerobics, pool walking, running, strength and functional training in water. “After about six-eight months, I undertook a long trek to Kailash Mansarovar. By then the pain had vanished and finally, I could wear my clothes standing too,” she adds.
Gourav Khabya, co-founder of HithYoga, a yoga studio based in Delhi, says: “A better body balance translates into quicker reflexes, better muscular strength and joint stability. And it also contributes to improving the emotional state by building self-efficacy and confidence, and maintaining it is a continuous process.”
Identifying the problem
How does one know there is a problem with one’s equilibrium? For this, it is important to understand the interplay between body balance, posture and the way these affect our daily activities. Do you put more weight on your left or right side while sitting/standing? Do you find walking on toes difficult? Have you developed back pain while doing squats? “If your answer is yes to any of the above questions, then you might have issues with your body’s balance,” warns Khabya.
“Worsening of handwriting (writing involves cooperation among the brain’s cognitive, motor and emotion areas), chronic back pain and constantly bruised shins and knees are also some signs to look out for in people with poor balance,” adds Dr Gupta.
Finding a Solution
Ageing isn’t the only reason for balance problems. These can happen because of wrong lifestyle habits like a bad posture. “Maintaining a good posture is the route to improving and maintaining body balance. Balance-training postures can be dynamic, involving movement, or static, without movement, and should be done at least three days a week,” says Varma.
One of Varma’s favourite balance exercises is performing lunges with trunk rotation. Even a simple exercise like standing on one foot while doing tasks such as washing the dishes or talking on the phone helps. Just hold the pose for 30 seconds on each side, she suggests.
Dancing helps too. A study in the journal Nursing Administration Quarterly in 2010 reported that dance can prove helpful in improving gait and balance.
Khabya believes that an imbalance at a physical level will affect the mind too. “That’s why, besides correcting the imbalance on the physical level, we should also work on bringing in balance to bring in better overall harmony through meditation,” he says.
There are many asanas, like the Vrikshasana (Tree Pose), that can improve your sense of balance but they should be tailored to individual requirements. “An important tip is that if you are a right-handed person, try starting the asana from the left side, and vice versa. This will bring in balance and harmony between both the sides,” Khabya says.
Of course, prevention is the best bet. “Check habits like putting the wallet in the back pocket, always carrying the handbag on one side, leaning on one side more while sitting, putting your body weight more towards one side during exercise, to avoid developing imbalance,” Dr Gupta suggests.
Exercises that can help
Lunges with trunk rotation
Assume a forward lunge position. Slowly rotate the trunk side to side with the arms out in front. Repeat on both sides five times each.
—By Nisha Varma, Reebok master-trainer
Vrikshasana (Tree pose)
Start the posture by standing in Tadasana, with arms at your sides. Distribute the weight equally on both feet. Bend your right knee and start shifting weight on the left foot; as you lift your right foot, place it at the top of the left thigh with the toes of the right foot pointed downwards. If you can’t take it higher, try taking it as high as possible without losing your balance. Try maintaining balance by gazing at a stationary point in front of your eyes. Now, take your arms upwards and join them above your head in a ‘namaskar’. Hold for as long as you are comfortable. To release the pose, step back into Tadasana. Repeat for the same amount of time on the other side.
—By Gourav Khabya of HithYoga