A collaboration between Hannah Oguz and Jeff Malan (Biokineticist)
What is balance?
Athletic movement is first and foremost about human movement. As humans we use motor programs to allow us to repeat an activity without having to relearn the mechanics. In early infancy, motor programs are first used in movement, whether rolling, crawling, or walking. These successful movement patterns occur before the child can communicate effectively with words, and before they develop the observational skills to simply mimic such a complex movement. Therefore movements are learned by feel. This feel is called proprioception or body awareness; the way the body senses both touch and movement. As the child/athlete develops and creates more complex motor programs, feedback in the form of words and observations will help to refine and improve athletic movement.
However, if a specific muscle becomes tight or weak, is not being engaged efficiently, or at one time had been injured, these correct motor patterns can be altered to avoid using that specific muscle. As most of our muscles work antagonistically, one of these paired muscles can become inhibited in an attempt to make a movement pattern more efficient during this imbalance. Eventually a movement pattern will be developed that neglects this particular muscle or uses it less, causing compensations and imbalances which could increase the risk of injury.
This is where balance becomes essential, the ability to have our postures in equilibrium with our base of support (Prentice, 2004). As human beings we carry the majority of our body weight fairly high off the ground compared to some of our four-footed friends. This means we have a very high centre of gravity, and being bipeds, we have a small base of support for our tall structure. Our balance is maintained seamlessly through our daily lives and physical activity through a careful interplay between our sensory inputs and our muscular control through the following steps;
Step 1: Our inner-ear, vision and joint senses supply information to our Central Nervous System (CNS) about our body’s current position.
Step 2: Our CNS processes these inputs and sends the signal back towards the muscles.
Step 3: The body then responds with co-ordinated and very precisely timed muscular activation to counteract any shifting of our centre of gravity.
So therefore it is our sensors in our musculature that keep the body in a state of readiness and awareness by constantly monitoring tension so that the muscle can be relaxed (or contracted) to allow for proper movement. The joints and muscles function automatically to protect the body and make movement efficient, which is a critical factor in proprioception and body awareness. It is only when we try to purposefully improve this skill, or try to regain it after an injury that we realise the complexity of the task. If we for any reason cannot accurately sense our centre of gravity relative to our base of support, or if we are unable to automatically respond effectively with appropriate muscular contraction, we are likely to fall (Houghlum 2001).
Through advancements in technology, machines have been created which can measure your ability to balance and indeed help you to effectively improve your static and dynamic balance ability. One such device is the Balance SD system produced by Biodex, which features a force plate that can be set to be static as well as wobbly for those with greater balance.
A biokineticist or sport scientist can evaluate balance and sporting performance, through either measurement with devices such as the above or through functional fitness tests. Should you suspect that your child’s balance or performance is less than optimal, make an appointment for an evaluation.
The good news is that your child can improve his/her balance by performing some simple routines on a regular basis.
Read next week’s article on the PSP website for these exercises.
Clark, R. & T. Kraemer (2009). Clinical Use of Nintendo Wii™ Bowling Simulation to Decrease Fall Risk in an Elderly Resident of a Nursing Home: A Case Report. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy 32(4): 174 – 180.
Cook, G. (2003). Athletic Body in Balance: Optimal movement skills and conditioning for performance, Human Kinetics:USA.
Houghlum, P. (2001). Therapeutic exercise for musculoskeletal injuries, Human Kinetics:USA.
Laessoe, U. & Hoeck, H. (2007). Fall risk in an active elderly population – can it be assessed?. Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine, 6(2): 11.
Lee, B. compiled and edited by Little, J. (2008). The art of expressing the human body. Tuttle Publishing: Boston. Chapter 9. pp 80.
Liu-Ambrosea, T. & Khana, K. (2004). Balance Confidence Improves with Resistance or Agility Training. Gerontology, 50: 9.
Prentice, W. (2004). Rehabilitation techniques for Sports Medicine and Athletic Training, McGraw Hill:UK.