Balance: Why It's Important & How It Works
There are a couple different ways we can think about balance - we can think about it as managing work/life balance, as well as social life and responsibilities balance. These are all good things to work on for a happy/healthy life, however today we will be discussing physical balance and the three systems within the brain that work together to allow us to keep ourselves from falling! The brain uses 3 sensory systems to collect information about the body and the environment to allow us to navigate different types of terrain and to keep us upright. These 3 sensory systems are the visual system, the vestibular system, and the proprioceptive system.
The visual system is probably the most obvious of the 3. To do this, the brain collects information from the back of the eye called the retina. The retina receives light from the environment which causes the cells within the retina to become active and the light information is processed in the back of the brain, called the occipital lobe. This allows us to detect what objects are in the area, which could pose as obstacles, as well as anticipate any changes in the surfaces that we may be walking on, such as going from walking over cement to walking over gravel roads. Knowing this information can change how we approach navigating through different environments.
The vestibular system works to provide information to our brain from our inner ears about how quickly our head is moving and what direction our head is moving when we move it. The inner ear is comprised of 3 semi circular canals that are filled with fluid. When we move our head, the fluid moves within these canals. The rate at which the fluid moves within these canals is then sent to the brain which allows us to stay upright every time we move our head. Therefore, when you go to an amusement park and go on a ride that spins, it is very difficult for you to maintain your balance afterward because when you get off the ride the fluid is still moving within your inner ear, giving you the perception that your head is still moving when it is not.
Proprioception seems like a long and complicated word, but it describes an extremely important sensory system within the body. Proprioception is our body’s understanding or awareness of where it is in space. It is the reason you can walk forward without having to look down at your feet or understand where your feet are relative to your body. Our brain uses a combination of different kinds of sensory nerves to collect information from our body to give us proprioceptive awareness. We then utilize this proprioceptive awareness in concert with our visual system and our vestibular system to keep us upright in an ever-changing environment.
All these systems work together to keep us from falling over as we move and perform our daily activities. If one of the systems is impaired, it puts strain on the other two systems, making it much more difficult to keep yourself upright and can put you at a risk of falling and possibly hurting yourself. Therefore, it is so important to have good balance! Working on improving your balance can help decrease your risk of falling but it can also enhance your strength and improve performance in sports! One way is to work on your static or stationary balance by standing on one leg (with something stable close by to help catch yourself if you begin to fall) and holding that position for 30 secs. You can progress this by diminishing input from one of the three systems that we just talked about. For example, if we perform single leg stance with our eyes closed, this will make it harder because the brain is receiving less visual input. We can also progress this exercise by affecting the vestibular system and proprioceptive system by perform the single leg stance while doing head turns (diminishes vestibular input) or performing on an unstable surface (affects proprioceptive input). All of these are great ways to enhance your static balance which can help prevent you from falling and keep you safe!