Balanced By D.M. Zumbaugh

Do you realize that your sense of balance is essential for your very survival? Any deficiencies within your skeletal, muscular or nervous system components for equilibrium can seriously impact your ability to even walk! Humans are unique in the animal kingdom by being bi-pedal. Our spinally erect posture is essentially an anti-gravity staff. Thus, people have evolved novel vertical balance capabilities that synchronize actions and movements with complex adjustments that correct de-stabilizing inputs – gravity, upon the body’s mass over it’s base – your feet.

For hunters, hikers or golfers, it is very important to be conscious of your fitness level and work on improving balance. Even professional athletic programs now incorporate strenuous balance exercises that improve agility to prevent injuries to ankles, knees, hips and associated soft tissues. For you former ball players with previous joint wrecks, attention to balance capabilities is as important as strength and cardio workouts.  Believe it or not, the relative biological age of the body can be ascertained through balance testing; such is the importance of your sense of spatial relations. It is a consequence of life cycles that with maturity, your sense of stability declines.

So, what are the system components that regulate balance? First, the central nervous system (CNS) including your brain and spinal cord is the command center, data processor and data storage facility. Connecting directly to the CNS are your eyes and ears providing critical sensory input. A special, vitally important soft organ within the ear, called the labyrinth, is responsible for spatial position calculations. This means the labyrinth determines body motion in multi-dimensional positions and then provides the information to the brain which compares it with visual pictures to allow you to move.

Next, is the peripheral nervous system (PNS), consisting of nerves, neurons and clusters of neurons that transmit data to and from the muscles, bones and appropriate organs to the CNS.  These sensory receptors collect input from inside and outside of the body for interpretation and actionable commands by the CNS.  Your ankles have such clusters called proprioceptors that detect subtle changes in position, tension, force and movement and transmit this data to the brain.  With a tilt or slip of the foot the brain can send commands to muscles to re-distribute weight in a split second to prevent a fall or sprain.

Now that you understand the importance of balance and basic system mechanics, what can you do to improve your current state? Here are some methods that are proven to maintain and improve your performance.

The simplest technique is to stand on one foot with your eyes closed. If you have difficulty doing this continuously for one minute, issues exist. You can cheat a little and use your outstretched arms to help. Start by doing five one minute repetitions on each foot, everyday for a week and see how fast you can improve.

To gain a further edge, when standing on one foot, bend you leg enough to touch the floor with your opposite hand and then return to a standing position.  Another variation is to have a partner play catch with you with a basketball while you are on the solo foot and then alternate roles to make it a bit more fun.

An additional home remedy is to jump rope.  You will get the added benefit of building endurance and receive some slight flexibility improvements if done regularly. Jumping rope is a very good way to warm-up muscles and get all body systems chugging to full capacity.

Another low impact method is to run backwards. Start easy and slow at first and use a spotter if you try this at the gym or other area where collisions with other people or objects could occur. Some say this makes your CNS practice in reverse with your PNS, ultimately making your forward gears much more efficient.

There are some commercial workout aids such as balance boards, small trampolines and my favorite, the Bosu Ball. These are designed for you to repeatedly step or jump on an unstable surface to force your balance systems to synchronize and re-train.

As you progress you could find that to reap maximum benefits you may need to strengthen specific muscle groups, especially those associated with your knees.  There are many weight routines that can help. One example is to hold a straight bar over your head with your arms and step up on a low bench, alternating legs.  You can add weight as tolerable. For these advanced methods, I suggest you develop a program with a qualified trainer.

After you have worked at these exercises a bit you will realize far fewer body aches and injuries, have better agility and confidence to traverse your favorite hunting grounds or trails. Your efforts will be rewarded with a safer, more enduring outdoor experience.

 

David Zumbaugh is an author and photographer in the Kansas City area.

 

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