Joann had always dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands and exploring the amazing wildlife. However, at age 81, she sensed that her abilities were declining to the point where she may not be able to live out her dream of walking the island beaches and exploring its many natural habitats. Truthfully, she felt very unsteady on her feet Her balance was shaky when she first stood up from a seated position, and she could barely walk from one city block without aid or rest. To complicate matters, Joann had Parkinson’s Disease, which further challenged her balance, her ability to move, and sometimes resulted in her body shaking with uncontrollable tremors. But Joann was not ready to give up yet – her dream compelled her to explore how she can make her Galapagos trip possible. That’s where we were able to help her develop a plan to work on her balance and mobility, along with her overall strength.
For nine months, she trained three times a week, diligently working on the skills she would need for her trip. She knew she needed the ability to walk on the beach, hike through rainforests, climb into and out of sightseeing boats, and more. Her trainer gave her complex, varied exercises so that she would be ready for any challenge.
When the time came, Joann and her husband enjoyed their dream trip of a lifetime. She continued with her functional fitness training for another eight years, keeping her Parkinson’s in check and maintaining her independence.
As Joann’s story illustrates, our ability to keep moving in the long term requires much more than keeping up with our daily routines around the house or at work. The world isn’t flat, and the path around us isn’t always clear. That means we need to prepare ourselves for everything we expect to encounter, especially, what we don’t expect to encounter!
We divide the development of these complex skills and movements into two main categories: balance and mobility.
Balance Must Be Trained Too
Balance is about staying upright and having control over your movements, so you don’t fall over. More scientifically, it is our ability to keep our center of gravity (which is located right around your belly button) over our base of support (our feet), so we don’t topple over. It sounds simple enough, but it is far from it.
Balance is one complicated animal. Our senses are constantly scanning the environment, assessing where we are in space and getting our muscles to respond appropriately (what we call motor output). The three primary senses we use for balance are: vision, proprioception, and vestibular.
- Our eyes (the visual system) tell us where we are in relation to our environment; when something might hit us; and obstacles we need to negotiate.
- Our proprioception sends sensory information to our brains about the positioning of our bodies. This includes our sense of touch and an awareness of where our limbs are in space. It helps us on unstable or slippery surfaces and helps us determine appropriate counter force when we’re interacting with other objects.
- Our vestibular system is inside our inner ear. It tells us where our head is in space and keeps us from getting dizzy when we’re swinging, swaying, and spinning.
All three systems work together, but they must also work well independently. They provide a backup for each other when the other systems can’t contribute their part. For example, when you are walking to the bathroom in the dark at night your visual system can’t help you much, so the other two senses have to kick it up a notch.
When you think about it, balance and all it’s components are a basic, yet incredibly phenomenal, ability.
Balance gives us our ability to control our bodies – ideally, without constant, conscious thought – and allows us to do things like lean forward, move down to the floor quickly, stand very still, or walk across the room. In most cases, we do these things without giving them any thought because we have so many senses that are interacting to keep us balanced.
Balance as We Age
As we age, we may start to notice our balance is not as good as it was in our youth. Since balance is so complex, there are a variety of reasons this happens. Some or all the systems we mentioned above may have started to decline.
Our vision is probably not quite as good as it once was. Our vestibular capabilities may have decreased. And our center of gravity may have shifted significantly due to excess weight or poor posture. The senses in our hands and feet may be diminished as well.
Perhaps you’ve tried hopping on a swing at a playground in recent years. With an aging vestibular function, what was once a thrill can feel very disorienting.
Good balance is needed for so many daily activities – navigating a parking lot, stepping onto curbs, moving past people in a movie theater, stepping over objects in our path, dancing at a wedding, hiking, etc.
It’s easy to take balance for granted in our 40s. What we don’t want is to wake up one day in our 60s and realize we don’t have the balance we need to feel safe doing the things we need to do and the things we like to do. You want to be able to take your granddaughter to the park or walk your dog or even visit the Galapagos – for years to come!
Trusting your body and your senses when you’re navigating life is important. It is important to train your balance using a multidimensional approach. Your trainer should guide you through postural strategies, balance challenges, and multi-sensory and center-of-gravity activities. The result? You will not only see improvement in balance, but overall fitness as well.
You should begin with simple exercise, such as standing on one leg or walking heel to toe. As your awareness and balance and improves, add in exercises like leg swings or practice standing on one leg with your eyes closed, or even work up to balancing on squishy, uneven surfaces.
As fitness coaches, we know how to incorporate many different balance challenges into workouts. The good news is that most exercises can easily be adapted to challenge and train our balance as we work on other functions – particularly mobility.
Good Mobility is Essential Too
Mobility is really about your ability to move. More specifically, it’s your ability to move in different ways in any environment. Of course, it can be as simple as walking and running. But it also includes movements like getting up and down from the floor and standing up from a seated position without using your arms to steady or push yourself up. It’s also about getting around obstacles, like when your living room is full of moving boxes, or when you’re browsing a crowded farmer’s market.
Good mobility helps us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments.
Far too often, we get to a point in life where we seldom have playgrounds or obstacle courses to challenge us and keep us young. We go to work, walk into our office, walk out of our office, and go home. The same routine every day. Once at home, we generally don’t find a lot of surprising obstacles either.
Then, we get the opportunity to go hiking somewhere, and we suddenly realize how challenging it is to step over tree roots, navigate uneven terrain, and climb over boulders on the trail. It requires a lot more mobility than the normal day-to-day activities we’re accustomed to.
Balance and Mobility Keep Us Moving
Balance and mobility go hand in hand. While balance ensures that we stay upright and are able to control our movements, mobility directs the many types of movements that are needed in specific environments.
Both are essential for living your best life. You need balance and mobility when you play a sport, like tennis or golf, and you need them when you get up from a chair or turning to look behind you.
Enjoyment of the things we want to do and like to do is diminished when we notice challenges to our balance or mobility – when we start to struggle going up and down steps, dancing with our partner, or when dealing with difficult terrain.
For some, even turning our head to the left or to the right while we walk in a straight line becomes a challenge.
That’s when we start to see people opting out of hiking and biking opportunities; skipping a boat ride because they can’t climb in or out of the craft; or settling for simpler vacations because they just don’t have the physical capabilities needed to explore the world.
Training variety for Balance and Mobility
Life is an adventure, and you want to be ready to take on whatever opportunities might come along. That means you need to train for a wide variety of physical activities.
One thing you’re likely to notice is that balance and mobility training incorporates different movements than the exercises you may be accustomed to. You can expect your workouts to be much more dynamic, and, in a lot of ways, much more fun because we’re going to be incorporating new things all the time. As soon as you feel you’ve mastered one thing, it’s time to shift gears and introduce another obstacle or another step. A different platform. A different device.
You’re going to be asked (if appropriate) to get up and down off the floor in different ways. You may be challenged to carry uneven weights, to perform exercises while standing on padded surfaces, reach in all directions with your feet firming planted beneath your hips, and more. When we challenge your body this way – with unique tasks and motions – your balance and mobility improve.
As trainers, our goal is to get you to a place where you will not have trouble doing any of the things that you want to do (or dream to do), no matter what you’re age is. Whether you’re in your 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, you will still be able to move with grace and ease and will be able to do all the things you want to do.
Movement is living and we want to make sure you live your life and enjoy it to the fullest.
You may not be at that point today where your balance and mobility are keeping you from doing much. But think about the coming years. How invested are you, currently, in maintaining, your balance and mobility so you can keep doing the things you need, want, and love to do for the rest of your life?