By Connie Aronson
Some athletes make it look so darn easy. Take, for example, the 2003 Tour de France. It was the last big descent in the Alps. Joseba Beloki's front wheel locked, throwing him off his bike, right in front of Lance Armstrong. Not only did Lance swerve into a field, but he had to maneuver over a ditch and stalks, all to get back into the race unharmed, a remarkable feat of strength and also of extraordinary balance.
While most of us don't ride a bike going 50 miles per hour, we do ski, cycle, skate, weight-lift, play baseball or soccer, climb and hit tennis balls. All of these sports are the essence of dynamic balance; keeping the body under control while moving. Balance is a crucial component of all movement skills, especially agility, and diminishes as we age. Our neural loops unfortunately get slower. Serious muscle imbalances, in strength or flexibility, prevent dynamic balance and are the leading cause of injury and orthopedic problems. Falls, often caused by a loss of balance, are not only embarrassing, but can force a maximal contraction that could most likely cause a fracture.
Proprioceptors tell us exactly where we are in our skin, muscles and joints. The term comes from the Latin "proprio" (self) and" capto" (to grasp). The other organs of balance and body position are located in the inner ear and are stimulated when we move our heads, as well as our eyes, as they give us information about the environment. Muscles are constantly stabilizing and correcting one part of the body against the other. For example, even lifting your arm causes subtle changes throughout your body. The trick of anybody is that these actions happen efficiently. Practicing a few simple balance and strength exercises stimulates reflex and reactive pathways, which all help with more controlled and coordinated movement.
Next time you're working out try standing on one leg in a Tree Pose, called Vrksana. Close your eyes. Notice if you throw your hip out or have to step out. Next, try it while turning your head completely to one side. Then pause. Next, do it while tilting your head completely to one side. Pause.
You can also challenge the tactile sensors by placing one foot in front of the other like you're on a tightrope, while brushing your teeth. The same progression, with your feet still heel to toe, of turning your head, first right, then left, to closing your eyes, is another simple, effective exercise.
If you have a stability ball, hold it in front of you standing on one leg, and give it 10 strong bounces, adding pressure and oscillation to the exercise. You might also have someone tap strongly on the ball, while you hold it in front of you, standing on one leg, without moving from position.
If you enjoy yoga, practice the Vrksana pose on a regular basis. It can improve your balance as well as strengthen the muscles of the supporting foot. Advance all these exercises by standing on an unstable surface, such as a foam pad, or a half-ball, called a BOSU (Both Sides Up).
Connie Aronson is a certified personal trainer who practices in Ketchum.