It’s no wonder balance and stability are hard for humans. In evolutionary terms, we only stood up from four legs to two a little while ago. You may have noticed that if you fall asleep standing, you fall down. That’s not true, e.g., for cows.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a fun fact to know and tell your friends: Like all the other animals with legs, you were born knowing how to walk – it’s in your DNA. What you had to learn is how to balance on two legs. In that sense, you are more like dancing bears at the circus (luckily, without being chained and abused) than you might care to admit. One way or another, your circus act must go on for the rest of your life, so you’d best keep up your technique. Here are some strategies:
Good posture is important to balance and stability at all levels. In fact, balance goes beyond not falling down; because you are your body, good posture and movement prepare you to tackle challenges of all kinds and to enjoy your life more.
Here are some things to attend to if you want better balance.
The glutes,the muscles that create the contour of the buttocks – help us to stand firmly on our legs and especially on the back of the feet. Stand in front of a chair and sit back slowly and smoothly, not letting your knees go forward.
The abdominals keep the trunk steady when you’re moving around and standing on one leg, which you almost always are (if you don’t believe me, go to the circus and get in the ticket line. You’ll find yourself standing on on leg, like everybody else.) Lie on your back, feet flat and close, with your hands on your belly. Slowly lift one leg and then the other. If your belly stays down, move your feet a bit farther away; if not, move them closer. If you let your lower back come off the floor even a weentsy bit, your jolly exercise adventure will leave you tragic, like the sad clown under the big top, and make your balance worse.
Another muscle lies on the front of your spine, deep in the abdomen. It’s called the psoas (the first two letters are pronounced as in ‘pseudopod’ and ‘psychopath’). It propels you forward in fast running and it lifts your leg when you climb stairs. It also keeps your pelvis level over your legs. It tends to be tightly contracted, so releasing it is more important to balance and stability than strengthening. Stand in a deep lunge with your hands on a wall. Lower the back knee slowly until you feel your tail tipping toward the floor. Then try to keep your lunge low and your tail down while you stretch the back leg long behind you. Repeat 10 times. The more weight you take off the wall and the more you’ll work your balance and your glutes as well, but if your back hurts, angle your torso toward the wall.
The muscles that lift your arch, ankle and the inside of your leg are important too. Roll up a towel and put it between your thighs – no need to squeeze it, just stand narrow enough that it doesn’t fall. This turns you from a dancing bear to a stable, broad-based monopod. Then lift and separate your toes, which will lift your arch. Relax your toes down, but keep the high arch position. Hold that for a minute or more. Another fun fact known to circus acrobats is this: the only thing proven to prevent chronic ankle sprains is balance challenge, e.g. standing on one leg.
Grounding is important for balance. Stand in a straight line diagonal with feet on the floor and hands on the wall. You should have weight in your hands. Push the floor back and the wall up. Stay as long as you can. Feet closer to the wall = easier. Farther away = more challenging. Pushups and planks are core strengthening and grounding.
The Hidden First Responders. Here is a fact THEY don’t want you to know: The first and most important responders in balance and stability number in the dozens. They are tiny and deep and practically inside near the spine. (I am not bitter that I had to learn all of their Latin names and hiding places and you didn’t). Bad news: you can’t work these little muscles one at a time with well-placed tiny dumbbells. Good news: any balance challenge builds them. Often, the most minimal balance challenge is best. If you stand still with your legs together and your eyes closed, in a little while you’ll experience the fact that standing is actually falling and catching yourself (so is walking, by the way). These small muscles are the ones that are keeng you from falling all day long, before you even notice you’ve veered one way or another.
Doesn’t it make sense to build balance by balancing? But balancing when it’s really hard is counterproductive and also a bummer because confidence is a big part of conscious balance. Hold onto a chair or the wall and experiment with how little you need to hold on to the support.