At a Glance

  • Introduction
  • What is a wellness and movement approach to enhancing balance?
  • How do the 4 Principles to Wellness & Movement relate to balance?
  • Principle 1: Emotional Health – How we handle stress
  • Principle 2: Biochemical Health – How we sleep
  • Principle 3: Nutritional Health – How we digest, what and when we eat and drink
  • Principle 4 Physical Health – How we move (addressed in part 2)

Introduction

The statistics show that by 2045, there will be approximately 77 million people over age 65, and 1 in 5 people will be age 85 or older. Presently, this population is having challenges with everyday functional movements such as twisting, lifting, bending, squatting, going up and down stairs, walking, standing, reaching, pushing and pulling.

The most common orthopedic injury among older adults is hip fractures from falls related to a loss of balance. One third of Americans age 65 and older fall every year and it’s hardly a surprise that falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among seniors.

This article provides some real insight into enhancing balance for the older adult as well as for everyone in general. The popular notion of using various types of balance-enhancing equipment like the stability ball, rocker and wobble boards, and Bosu Balls to enhance balance is widely advertised and utilized in fitness, personal training and physical therapy settings.

However, what you will read in this article is far from the mainstream approach to enhancing balance. The older population is now making its way into fitness facilities and health clubs in the hopes of enhancing balance, unaware of the foundations needed before attempting to use the above-mentioned equipment. Proper education about the use of balance-enhancing equipment is needed and will require a wellness and integrated, systematic approach to balance training than is currently being used.

Embracing a wellness and movement approach to enhancing balance addresses the causes of loss of balance. I will share my view of a wellness and movement approach to enhancing balance, and although this can be a very complex topic, my intention is to present this article in laymen terms. I will also show you that it is not as easy as getting on a balance board or other balance-enhancing device.

What is a Wellness and Movement Approach to Enhancing Balance?

As a Wellness Movement Specialist and Performance Enhancement Trainer, I cultivate a wellness and movement approach with all my clients, addressing each client as a whole and not just the sum of their parts. I view the human body as a fully integrated organism and not a machine. This view looks at the human body as a system of systems—the immune, digestive, nervous, muscular, skeletal, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic, reproductive and endocrine systems—all of which communicate with one another throughout the human organism. Addressing the body from this perspective will get to the cause of all health challenges, including balance.

Wellness is defined as treating the whole person: mind, body and spirit. When I refer to wellness in this article I am referring to my 4 Principles to Wellness & Movement (Figure 1).

Each of these principles has an effect on balance. I will present the science that supports this approach; however, this will only be an overview to help you understand that to effectively enhance balance you must embrace a wellness approach.

4 Principles of Wellness Movement

figure 1

Multiple Stressors Affect the Body’s Balance Response System

When people think of stress they usually refer to something emotional, but what people are unaware of is that stress comes in many different forms. Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats and other stressors: emotional stress (worry, fear, anger, frustration, lack of focus, incorrect thinking and loss of purpose), biochemical stress (loss of sleep, hormonal imbalances), nutritional stress (digestive issues, toxins from food and water, non-organic food, prescription drugs, alcohol and sugar), physical stress (poor posture, inactivity and over activity).

Principle 1 Emotional Health – How we handle stress

Starting here makes the most sense, for the mind controls the body. The mind is likened to the CPU in a computer (Figure 2). The CPU controls the computer, as the brain controls the human body.

figure 2

Think of the sensory motor system or nervous system as the “software” and the muscular system as the “hardware” (Figure 3).

In this simple analogy the software guides the muscular “hardware” to its job; muscles and bones do not have a mind of their own and their actions are coordinated and activated via the nervous system and the brain.

figure 3

The stress response occurs when we perceive a threat. The body activates what is known as the “fight or flight” response or what is also known as a sympathetic response and this cascades numerous hormones into the body to prepare it to run or fight. Certain muscles are prone to tightness and others get weak, like the muscles that connect the head to the shoulders. Often people feel neck and shoulder tightness when they’re under stress, and this has an effect on the vestibular system. The vestibular system is part of the sensory system that provides a sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance.

Emotional stress is part of life and can occur without notice. The secret is to be able to change how you perceive the stress. In other words, it’s not about managing stress, it’s really about managing the mind. As I tell my clients: you can’t stop life stresses from occurring, but you can use tools to regulate the mind and bring more control over how you perceive it.

One more important point, emotional stress also has a direct effect on digestion creating a visceral somatic response. Science has proven the brain–gut connection:Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this ‘brain in your gut’ is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.” (Figure 4).

This brain–gut connection is why I view the body from a holistic and integrated system of systems. The relationship between a person’s emotional health and balance is crucial. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to emotional stress and its effect on balance.

3 Emotional Health Questions;

How do you handle stress?

Do you get anxious?

Do you feel overwhelmed?

Brain Communicates with the Organs, and the Organs Communicates with the Tissues.

figure 4
image credit: Beyond Addition

Principle 2 Biochemical Health – How we sleep

Biochemical changes that occur in the body have an effect on our body’s ability to repair, rejuvenate and recover. Many of the hormones are produced in rhythm with the body’s sleep/wake cycle, beginning with cortisol which wakes us up and then throughout the day other stress hormones are active. This activity starts to diminish as the day goes on, reducing certain hormones and releasing sleep and growth hormones in preparation for sleep, repair and restoration.

Between 10 pm and 2 am the body undergoes physical repair, and between 2 am and 6 am the body undergoes neurotransmitter repair which has a direct effect on your vestibular system. Neurotransmitters are chemicals found in the brain that control communication between the different areas of the body. Disruptions in sleep/wake cycles can result in adrenal fatigue (aka chronic fatigue).

A body that is not at rest is chronically under stress. This chronic stress will have an effect on our balance by way of the brain’s ability to react and respond to movement, especially when multiple things are happening at the same time, like when you’re walking and talking on the phone.

Between 50 and 70 million people suffer from sleep challenges. Nearly half of my clients either have trouble falling asleep or they wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep. When the body is compromised due to lack of sleep, its response to balance is reduced. Make sure that you’re well rested and not compromised when attempting any type of exercise that requires enhanced balance.

3 Biochemical Health Questions;

What time do you go to bed?

Do you have trouble falling asleep?

Do you wake up in the middle of the night and fall back to sleep?

Principle 3 Nutritional Health – How we digest, what and when we eat and drink

Did you know that the health and function of the digestive system have an effect on your balance?

“60 to 70 million people are affected by all digestive diseases”

National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Opportunities and Challenges in Digestive Diseases Research: Recommendations of the National Commission on Digestive Diseases. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 2009. NIH Publication 08–6514.

Less than optimal nutrition creates faulty digestive function and causes imbalances to other organs, specifically, the health and function of the “viscera.” The viscera are the soft internal organs of the body, including the lungs, heart, and the organs of the digestive, excretory, reproductive and circulatory systems. (Figure 5)

The body is a fully integrated organism and all systems communicate with one another to maintain balance between all the systems. The health of the viscera is crucial to the functions of the musculoskeletal system: when the viscera is dysfunctional, as with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut, chronic fungal and parasite infections, chronic inflammation, ulcerative colitis, heartburn and acid reflux can inhibit the function of key stabilizers, and affect posture and the body’s ability to acquire balance.

Let me briefly explain how the viscera communicates with the body. The relationship between viscera and the musculoskeletal system can be best understood when we use examples: lower back pain during a woman’s menstrual cycle or during a bladder infection, or tightness in the left arm as a sign of a heart attack.

figure 5

These examples reveal what is known as the “viscerosomatic reflex.” The brain communicates with the organs and the organs communicate with the tissues.  In Figure 8 (pictured below) you will see the brain, spine, spinal cord and organs and how via the brain (the CPU) communicates down the spinal cord to the organs and vice versa. However, the organs also have a connection to the tissues and this case the abdominal wall, otherwise known as the core muscles.

Where are the core muscles?

Most people don’t realize where the core muscles actually are.

Let’s set the story straight.

The core muscles are more than then just muscles around your mid-section. There is a front and back side of the core. (Figure 6).

The front side starts at the upper chest to the hip flexors (where the legs insert into the hip). The back side starts at the upper shoulder/back muscles and goes down to the gluteus maximus muscles (butt muscles). Then there are outer and inner core muscles. The outer core is visible when looking at the mid-section or abdominal muscles and ribs or oblique muscles and help to control stability while in motion.

The inner core is not visible to the naked eye, but as seen in Figure 7, those muscles are comprised of the transverse abdominus, the pelvic floor, diaphragm and multifidus muscles.

figure 6

The inner core is responsible for segmental stability of the spine and joint structures and is very important for balance. The inner core is located in the same cylindrical location as the viscera and they communicate together.

As seen in Figure 8, the sympathetic response inhibits digestive activity and because of the neurological relationship between the inner core and the viscera this has an effect of balance and stability.

figure 7
reprinted with permission from the CHEK Institute

figure 8

reprinted with permission from the CHEK Institute

How does this affect balance?

The digestive system communicates with the key stabilizers of the spine. When the digestive system is out of balance, it can actually inhibit (turn off) the deep spinal stabilizers, which could lead to spine and joint injuries, as well as have an influence on the body’s balance. Things that inhibit the inner core muscles and create a viscerosomatic response are emotional stress,  pain, food allergy symptoms, fungus or parasite infections, and any type of inflammation or digestive dysfunction will shut down these stabilizers and affect balance.

The importance of the health of the viscera and the function of the inner core muscles is vital to enhancing balance. It is important for the both the viscera and inner core to function together to enhance balance. Any attempt to do balance training in the presence of dysfunction to either the viscera or inner core will create a faulty response to the balance receptors and will create unfavorable ligament and joint stress which will further destabilize the body and the body’s balance response system.

Viscera and inner core dysfunctions are more common than you think. In fact, in my observations and assessments of hundreds of non-painful and painful clients, 99% displayed dysfunction to the inner core due to dysfunction to the viscera, pain or joint misalignment. More than 75% of my clients have digestive or viscera dysfunctions that include gluten intolerance or IBS. Medications also serve to disrupt the digestive system and create inflammation in the gut which in turn inhibits the inner core.

If the viscera or digestive system are dysfunctional, the communication with the balance response system will be less than optimal. Therefore any attempt at strength or functional training that requires balance will increase the likelihood of injury.

What and when you eat and drink can also play a role in how your balance is affected. Skipping meals can create blood sugar handling problems, eating foods that create digestive challenges and being dehydrated can all have an effect on the body’s ability to respond to the need for increased balance.

3 Nutritional Health Questions;

Do you currently have any digestive issues?

Do you have heartburn or acid reflux?

Do you have any food intolerance’s?

So, as you see there is a lot more to balance training than we thought. This concludes part 1, and part 2 will cover Principle 4: Physical Health – How we move. I will cover how poor posture, various environmental demands with regards to balance, upper cervical dysfunction, poor respiration, chewing / jaw dysfunctions, poor vision and how they all contribute to a loss balance.