Balance rarely receives a lot of attention, but it's one of the four key components of fitness (the remaining being aerobic ability, strength and flexibility). A person who is fit is strong in all of these areas.
You may wonder why balance plays such a significant role in your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms in the U.S. for every age group but two (10-14 and 15-24) — and in those age groups, falls came in second. Indeed, a new study shows that people in their 20s fall as frequently as people in their 80s.
Researchers at the epidemiology department at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to learn whether fitness plays a part in the likelihood of falling, among other things. They had participants answer questions about the amount of aerobic exercise they did each week and then administered a treadmill test. The research, published in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that of the 10,615 participants between the ages of 20 and 87, 2,110 (or 20 percent) reported falling in the last year. The team concluded that individuals need about two hours of regular exercise a week to lower the risk of falling. Those who exercised less — or not at all — did not have the same protection.
"Of all the fall prevention strategies that have been studied over the last two decades, well-designed exercise programs produce the best results, both in terms of lowering fall risk and fall incidence rates," says Debbie Rose, co-director of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence at California State University at Fullerton.
Exercise of all kinds hones not only your body but also your body's communications with its control tower, your brain. It does this through proprioception, your inner sense of the position of your body parts, where they are in relation to one another and with respect to the space around you. When you have a high degree of proprioception, you know without looking, for example, the exact location and position of your arms, and the precise angle of your body with respect to the ground. If you know the location of your limbs, when you start to fall you will stick one of them out in a flash, in time to stop yourself from falling. Without good proprioception, however, you are less likely to regain your balance if you take a misstep.
Contrary to what many people believe, balance is trainable, and those who adopt activities requiring it can retain peak balance. Regular activity sharpens your wiring and speeds up the transmission of signals from your toes to your brain and back again.
You improve your balance when you perform almost any aerobic, strengthening or flexibility activity — when you walk, run, climb stairs, do aerobic circuit training, take a spin class, dance, train on an elliptical or StairMaster machine.
The activities that best improve balance are those that test your equilibrium. You can stand on cushions or try one of the new devices designed to exercise balance, but everyday exercise works too — walking on uneven surfaces, as with hiking or rock hopping; martial arts; gymnastics; water aerobics; yoga; Pilates; Tai Chi; bicycling; dance; fishing; rowing; skiing or snowboarding; riding a scooter; mountain biking; cyclocross; surfing; kickboxing; climbing; and — one of my personal favorites — skating.
Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-wrote "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit fasterbetterstronger.com.