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A key fitness component often overlooked: balance

Yoga is one way to work on balance, which is important for preventing falls, a hazard as people grow older.

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A well-rounded fitness routine typically includes three main pillars: cardio (walking, biking, etc.), strength (using machines, dumbbells, bands, etc.) and flexibility (stretching, yoga, etc.)

Balance should be considered the fourth pillar – a "non-negotiable" component of every regimen.

Why?

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Balance and proprioception are intrinsically linked. Proprioception is the feedback loop between the body and brain; it's the mind-body connection that allows your brain to know where you are in space and thus how your body should appropriately react. By challenging and training your balance, you also fine-tune your proprioception.

This proprioceptive neurological feedback loop is vital for everything from athletic manoeuvres, to fall prevention, to improved posture, to injury prevention and foot strength.

Improved balance will increase your margin for error with everything – from negotiating uneven terrain as you run, to weaving around another athlete on the field, to picking up heavy objects, to stabilizing yourself so that you don't fall.

Fall prevention is key, especially as we age. A study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Canada followed up with more than 500 broken-hip patients a year after their fractures. Of community-dwelling hip-fracture patients more than 50 years of age, 20 per cent had died, 5 per cent had had a second fracture and 20 per cent had been institutionalized. The outcomes were even worse for those in long-term care.

Improving your balance and proprioception can help prevent such falls from happening in the first place.

As an added bonus, training balance improves posture and foot strength. The better your balance – and thus your proprioceptive feedback loop – the more able your body is to determine where you are in space without your having to bend over and look. This means you can stand up taller. Plus, balance exercises, especially when done in bare feet, strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the feet. Improving your lower-limb biomechanics will decrease your risk of developing anything and everything from hip and knee pain to plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the fascia under the foot).

How do you incorporate balance exercises into your training routine?

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1. Add a few balance exercises to your warm-up.

Balance exercises wake up your brain-body communication. Thus, they are a perfect addition to any warm-up. They will prime your body for movement and help to improve your performance during the rest of your workout.

At the gym, use a Bosu (that half-ball object) to do step ups, sideways step-ups or even body-weight squats and lunges.

Don't have a Bosu? Stand on your left leg and lift your right knee up to hip height. Hold for five seconds. Lower the foot but don't touch down. Repeat three to 10 times. Then, without switching sides, hold your right leg up while rotating your head over and then away from the lifted knee. Repeat three times. Finally, lift the leg one last time and close your eyes. Then switch and repeat on the other leg.

2. Incorporate unstable equipment, such as a Bosu, resistance ball, foam roller or balance board into your main strength set.

Here are a few ideas:

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  • Instead of doing bench presses on a bench, do the exercise with your head and shoulders on a stability ball, your feet on the floor and your bum lifted in a bridge.
  • Instead of doing push-ups on the floor, put your hands on either side of a Bosu that is flat side up. Try to keep the Bosu stable as you do your push-ups.
  • Instead of doing a crunch on the floor, lie lengthwise on a foam roller. Do a mini curl. As you curl, try to lift one leg off of the floor without falling off of the roller.

One final key point: Risk looking goofy. If you are somewhat unstable, good – push yourself to almost fall over so that you can use your muscles to "right" yourself. That is how your body learns. Yes, safety is key, but compare balance training to weight lifting: If you lift two kilos forever you will never get stronger. If you can already stand on one leg easily, that is your equivalent of lifting two kilos. A balance exercise you can already do is not a balance exercise. To improve your balance you have to – within safe limits – work outside your comfort zone. Be safe, but challenge yourself. Think gradual progression. Try closing your eyes, standing on an uneven surface or decreasing your base of support.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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