Balance is more than standing on one leg

In Tai Chi we think of the body as consisting of nine major joints. The fingers and hand make up the first joint followed by of the wrist, elbow and shoulder. The toes and foot make up a single joint followed by the ankle, knees, hips and the waist.  We treat the waist as a separate joint because it is possible for you to turn your waist independently of your hips and as such we treat it as a separate joint.

Key to balance is the even distribution of weight about the center of gravity which enables you to remain upright. The relative position of the nine joints needs to be such that an even distribution of weight can be maintained at all times. In order to move, the brain via the muscular system adjusts the joints to shift the body weight in order to keep an even distribution of weight around the center of gravity.

The brain through the nerves tells the muscles to activate or relax as appropriate. However, the flexibility, strength and condition of the muscles will determine the extent and success to which these adjustments to the joints is achieved. However tho, you do not need the full potential range of movement in your the joints in order to be mobile.  You can see this in any high street by watching people walking and see how smooth or not so smooth the movement is.  The greater the degree of adjustment between the nine joints/levers the smoother the person will move. One should remember that there is a minimum level of flexility of the nine joints required in order to maintain your balance. The point is that by balance training you can significantly reduce the risk of reaching that point in you life.

So what determines the degree of adjustment.  It is the muscles, tendons and ligaments that connect to the joints and hold the joints together that will determine the degree of movement. The greatest impact on this is the degree of flexibility which determines the range of movement and the level of control the brain has to adjust the joints to maintain the even distribution of weight around your center of gravity.

The key concern is the loss of flexibility in the hip area which means that any adjustments required to keep your balance get transferred to the lower spine via accommodation of the back muscles or the soft tissue of the spine.  This can cause strains to develop in these areas which are felt as lower back pain.  At this stage individuals will be seeking help from chiropractors, physio’s and osteo’s to alleviate pain and discomfort in their lower back’s.  As much as these professionals can do for you, and they will tell you as much that the fundamental cause for much of the back problems is due to a diminished flexibility. As time moves on these back problems can become more acute and lead to more severe issues such as slipped discs.

Even if you never developed the back issues mentioned above the muscles in your hips will continue to shorten from your early forties on and and by that time you reach your late sixties and early seventies you will in all likelihood be experiencing instances of poor the balance.  This again comes down to their inability of the hips to adjust in order to keep the centre of gravity within the base of the body. (More on the technicality of how this works in later post)

Balance in two parts

Balance is made up of two parts, standing balance and moving balance.  Standing balance is less taxing than moving balance.  Being able to lift one leg while standing is obviously a critical test of the strength and the basic ability of all the small muscles in the hips to adjust in order to maintain the balance.  However, standing balance does not necessarily mean that you will be good at moving balance.  The key to moving balance is the transition and shifting of your weight between your legs to move in the desired direction.

If one of observes most people walking down the street you will see that they tend to fall on to their leading leg.  When you are young this is not really a problem because of innate flexibility that allows youngsters to adjust swiftly if there is a problem underfoot. By committing a large proportion of your weight to the front leg increases the risk of something going wrong if for example the ground gives way. It is so fast and so easily done.

This style of walking places more strain on the hip joints and muscles because essentially each step is a semi-controlled fall which you need to either use the front leg to push back your weight to stop or take another step to continue moving in the same direction. The inevitability of a fall is easy to see when you lose the ability to stop the fall because of flexibility and strength loss.

Also, the nature of this walking style is the commitment to the front leg which means that direction and speed adjustment is virtually impossible during the step. Many times you hear about broken ankles and falls because people couldn’t stop or change direction.

What can one do? Three things really, keep working on leg strength and overall flexibility and alter the way you walk to drive from the back leg as opposed to falling on the front leg.