It isn’t balance that’s static, but rather the mind that perceives it.
WARNING: This will be technical!
Imagine if you will a person standing in line at the store. They are balanced, seemingly static and unmoving. Compare that to the balance of a parkour athlete who has just completed a jump of 8ft, to a handrail, that is only a few inches wide, 3ft above the ground. These two examples of balance are on the extreme sides of the spectrum, to be sure.
From the outside looking in one is fixed and simple while the other is dynamic and difficult. I would like to argue, however, that the balance is the same. The difference is that we practice one more than the other. What you practice, you are capable of doing.
When we are balanced we are constantly in motion. Whether we notice it or not. Balance as an activity, is a never ending practice of minor and seemingly insignificant adjustments that the body makes to keep its center of gravity over an object. Wait, what? Did I lose you? Did you read it twice? I did say it would get technical.
In the fitness paradigm called MovNat, developed by Erwan Le Corre, balance is defined this way: “Physical balance is the ability to control the placement of the body’s center of gravity in relation to its support base. “
I’m guessing that the above definition wasn’t much more clear than what I wrote before it, but bear with me. First, we have two key pieces of information, both of which are abstract in nature.
- Center of gravity which is the invisible vertical line from the body to the ground
- Base of support which is an abstract area between all of the body parts in contact with the ground.
— i.e. If you are standing on one foot the base of support is the space directly underneath that single foot (Figure A). However, if you are on all fours (crawling) the base of support would be an imaginary area within the rectangle shape created by your hands and feet which are touching the ground (Figure B)
Referring back to the MovNat description on physical balance we can now discuss how a person has the ability to control the placement of their body.
There are three primary systems that are in charge of balance. First and foremost is the vestibular system, located in the inner ear. This system not only coordinates the spatial awareness and equilibrium of linear and rotational movements (i.e. moving and turning), in a sense, acting like a level for the body. It also works with our vision to keep our focus clear while moving and turning. GoPro has nothing on the vestibular system. Best stabilizer ever! The next system in the body is the proprioceptive system, which allows the body to know where each of its parts are in space. A finger can locate the mouth even when the eyes are closed thanks to this system. Lastly we have the visual system that takes in our external environment. When these systems are in harmony and functioning at a high level balance can be maintained in both static and dynamic situations.
Visual system– knowing our place in the external world
Vestibular system– located in the inner ear which coordinates spacial awareness and movement.
Proprioceptive system – awareness of where each part of the body is relative to the rest of the body.
When looking at the person standing in line at the store, the practice of balance looks, from the outside, like a very static thing. The body seems still. The person’s body weight is distributed between two feet which gives them a strong base. What has the effect of looking static, however, is actually an extremely complex interaction of the three systems listed above. These systems are making constant assessments and micro adjustments to keep the person balanced over their feet.
Need proof? Give this exercise a try.
Stand up, find your balance and then close your eyes and notice your feet and ankles twitching to keep your position. It’s not much but if you pay close attention you will feel it. With your eyes closed turn your head or lift an arm. The systems inside the body are doing work to keep you centered on your feet.
Now, balance on one foot.
Notice, if you will, how well – or not – the vestibular and proprioceptive systems are working now that you have added a bit of complexity to the system.
Are you able to keep the same micro movements that balanced you over two feet, or are you now making bigger and bigger movements to maintain balance? How long before you fall? Open your eyes again and with your new awareness stand on one foot. How is your balance now? Using all 3 systems together makes for better balance.
Fine-tuning these systems requires that the body learn to negotiate more complex situations. Once the body is familiar with itself – knows where it’s center-of-gravity is in relations to a foot, feet, feet and hands, etc. over the ground – the body can adapt and adjust to any situation it comes in contact with. I was once at a park and I saw a boulder that I decided to run up to, jump on and then jump off of while continuing my run. This fluid balance has been a normal practice and my body is well aware and capable of the movements required. However, as I landed on the rock it moved in an unexpected way because it wasn’t actually a rock. It was a plastic, hollow, faux rock. Luckily, this object still supported my weight and I was able to instantly adjust to the unintended movement of the rock because my balance systems took over and corrected my movement to maintain center-of-gravity.
While physical balance can become a very complicated thing the systems that run it are simple and consistent. This consistency is what allows us to move though, an often, chaotic world.
That said, we can short-circuit our balance systems if we don’t allow them, to do their job on a regular basis. It’s very much an “if you don’t use it, you lose it” scenario. Much like a piano needs to be tuned so that it sounds good when played. The systems that control balance need to be challenged to allow them to function optimally.
So while balance is an internal set of systems, the skill comes from using these systems in complex and unique environments, as often as possible.
Takeaway: if you want to minimize your chance of falling as you age, practice balancing EVERYWHERE, EVERYDAY!