"Call 911" were the words I heard my neighbor calling from across my fence. He was home, alone, and had fallen. He was trying (with no success) to get Siri to call 911. Unfortunately, I couldn’t move him by myself, so I called 911 and sat with him until help arrived.
As we waited, he said: “Balance and legs…you miss them when they’re gone!”
Yes, yes you do. I had just jumped the fence to help him, without giving it a second thought. That was something he could no longer do.
How often do we take ourselves for granted? I began thinking about balance and what it means to the body (and thanking my legs for getting me to him).
Amazingly, our entire relationship with gravity is controlled by a structure the size of a quarter! This is the vestibular system deep within the inner ear. Three donut-shaped, semi-circular canals are filled with fluid which moves tiny little hair cells to tell us if we are up, down, sideways, turning, moving or falling. Think about that for a minute: you can move because a tiny donut tells you it’s OK! Who says anatomy isn’t fun?
To keep you balanced, the vestibular system also monitors and often controls your eye movements. You turn your head right and your eyes move right. You turn your head right, but keep you eyes left and your vestibular system decides how to help you to move and yet stay in balance.
Sometimes our system fails. Maybe it was damaged or maybe it is in decline due to old age or an illness. When this happens, we experience vertigo or dizziness, body imbalances, clumsiness, muscle and joint pain (due to difficulty moving), vision and hearing changes, disorientation and problems with focus and even memory. This is just a partial list!
So how do you know if your vestibular system is struggling? Test your balance, of course. You can do a basic test by working through the below four variations on balance. As you do these, check for symptoms of stress/discomfort in the body (tight breathing, swaying sensation, nausea, sweating and tightening of muscles).
- Standing, legs together, eyes focused forward – can you hold this for 60 seconds?
- Standing, legs together, eyes closed – did you reach 60 seconds without symptoms of stress?
- Stand on one leg, eyes open and forward – can you reach 20 seconds?
- Stand on one leg, eyes closed – did you reach 20 seconds again?
- Now repeat steps 3 and 4 with the other leg.
Did you find that your balance can use a little help? Great, you can support improvements in your vestibular system in these ways:
- Get Therapeutic Massage
- Do Balance Drills
- Practice Yoga
- Do a Walking Meditation
Massage for Balance
A study1 in the International Journal of Therapeutic of Massage and Bodywork suggests that only six weeks of therapeutic massage results in immediate and long-term improvements in postural stability and blood pressure. The results are likely due to massage’s ability to restore muscle balance and function, restore appropriate muscle activation, decrease spasms, correct postural imbalances, and improve gait and movement confidence.
Imagine – you can improve your balance by lying down, breathing, relaxing and having a therapist do the work for you! Massage for the win!
Balance drills are a little trickier than lying on a massage table. Drills are monitoring your vestibular system’s ability to integrate information or stimulus in the brain.
For a drill to be effective, you must have a “control” or a way to measure results. So, these drills require a Range-of-Motion (ROM) assessment before and after each drill. A ROM can be anything that you choose: bend forward and try to touch the ground; raise an arm to the side and try to extend up to your ear; or even use balance (standing on one foot) to measure improvements.
Pick a ROM that works for you, then try the following steps:
- Do your assessment (ROM)
- Bounce up and down in place, feet forward, eyes forward for 20 seconds.
- Re-assess (ROM) – did you get an increased or decreased range of motion? Or no change?
- If ROM decreased or had no change, try bouncing again but change the time involved.
- Follow steps 1-5 above but for step 2, try gliding side to side (feet and eyes forward).
Bouncing and Gliding are providing direct stimulus to the vestibular system. Bouncing affects the Saccules which monitor up and down. Gliding affects the Utricles which monitors side-to-side. Both the Saccule and the Utricle monitor forward and back. By practicing this simple movement, in a way that provides positive feedback to the brain, your vestibular system learns how to better orient the body in space and balance improves!
Yoga is all about balance. I am in awe of the master Yogi balanced upside down on his little pinky! The combination of activating muscles and holding the musculoskeletal system in place for a set amount of time gives powerful stimulus to the brain and the vestibular system about how to move without falling victim to gravity. You can find a yoga flow routine online at Yoga Journal2 to help improve your balance.
Balance is a carefully crafted symphony of the body. Think of the body movements as the percussion – booming, banging, and keeping rhythm; the head movements are the woodwinds bringing the upper notes with eye movement resonating the brass that gives depth and direction. The nervous system then completes the strings section adding that special element of sensory information like temperature, pressure, and circulation.
This is a beautiful and complex symphony, but you don’t need to be able to read sheet music to understand it. You simply need to breath and move with awareness.
Walking meditation allows you to slow down and bring attention to all the individual instruments, informing you about your body and balance.
To begin – walk. Take note of your foot placement, the impact and lift of your stride, your speed and your control throughout your body.
Then – walk again, but VERY slowly. Concentrate on lifting the foot and putting it down. How does it feel to roll your foot forward? To engage the thigh muscles? To hold your posture upright?
As you move, assess. What is happening in my body? What is the quality of my movement? How is my balance? How do I feel?
You can continue this meditation in any way you like – speed up the pace (Allegro) or slow it down (Adagio). This is your symphony, so have some fun with it!
Love Your Body
Having good balance is, well…a balancing act. (Yes, I said that). It can improve with some effort and love for all your being. As my neighbor said, “you miss them when they’re gone.” Take some time to give gratitude for your body and how hard it works for you.
Too often we are critical judging our tummy for being too big, or our knees for being too week. Yet there is so much to be grateful for, so practice one more exercise. Stand in the mirror, touch your leg and say “leg, thanks for….” And move through your body giving thanks for what they do.
I’ll start – “Fingers, thanks for massaging clients without fail.” And “Arms, thanks for hugging my family.”
Find your balance. Your legs and your heart thank you!
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