Balance is vital to normal everyday life activities…getting out of a chair, walking, bending over to put your shoes on, doing your hair, driving, gardening, housework. Just about everything you do in your daily life, requires balance control, and most of the time you don’t have to think about it. Problems with balance can be obvious, e.g. falling or dizziness, but can also be quite subtle. In addition to increased risk of falls, common secondary symptoms of balance problems are decreased attention span, disruption of normal sleep patterns, and excessive fatigue.
Physical balance comes around through a complex interplay of one’s entire sensory system, brain and muscles and joints; balance is affected when any of these components encounter a problem.
A common reason for poor balance is weak or inflexible muscles, particularly in the hips, legs and ankles. As we age, our reflexes slow and our vision may deteriorate. These three factors contribute to much of balance problems. Poor posture also contributes to poor balance, as it affects the neurological signalling through the spine and tendons, and the range of vision used as we age.
Diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, and viral infections cause balance problems. Histories of injuries, ear infections or untreated high blood pressure affect balance. Various drugs affect balance. The cumulative history of all these things in your life affects balance, so you can well imagine why the risk of developing balance problems increases with age.
Interestingly a history of falls, even one, can lead to more falls. It is thought that this may be due to an increased “fear of falling” leading to cutting back on large movements and activities requiring balance. This then has a negative feedback effect; the balancing muscles get weaker and the neural pathways required for balance taper off. The brain’s ability to transmit and receive the neural signals that lead to good balance is key. And as with many things involving the brain, neurologists are finding the “use it or lose it” mentality applies to balance. By challenging a person’s balance on a daily basis, the nerves that fire those messages to the brain stay active and alive.
Is a loss of balance control an inevitable consequence of ageing? “No!” say the Harvard medical scientists who study balance. To retain or regain your balance the Harvard Health Letter suggests that you get active to maintain the neural connections necessary for good balance, improve your posture so you won’t be apt to fall, and maintain your strength for a good foundation.
Yoga is almost designed to address improvement in balance. It strengthens weak muscles, stretches tight tendons, improves posture, sharpens awareness and encourages repetition.
Balance can be learnt, balance can be improved with practice!