When my editor assigned me a story on balance, I wondered if it was some sort of sick joke. I am a full-time working mother of two who is running so hard my head spins for an hour every night in the dark making compulsive lists of what I have to do for job, kids, husband, school, soccer, piano, life. On weekends, I run to exhaustion to quiet my monkey mind. People talk to me about balance and I laugh.
I know I am not alone. Life is getting faster, and people are expected to do more and more at higher and higher speeds. But medical and mental experts agree, balance -- both physical and mental -- is essential to our daily well-being and long-term health.
I set out on a quest to find some simple exercises that can be integrated into everyday life to restore my mental and physical balance -- and to see if there is a link between the two. Here is what I found.
We are born, we learn to walk, then run. As we age, the process reverses. Our eyes and ears get weaker, our muscles atrophy, we move less. Some of us take medications that further impair our balance. In order to balance, many of our body's complex systems must interact: the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the vestibular system (brain and inner ear), the visual system (brain and eye), muscles, tendons and bones (which allow us to move) and a web of position-sensing nerves called proprioceptors (which tell us where our bodies are in space).
Harvard Medical School recently published a special report called "Better Balance," in which the authors point out that bad balance, particularly in older adults, can cause injuries and even death. According to their report, in 2009, more than 22,300 people 55 and older died in fatal falls. Four out of five of those were in adults 65 and older.
Abbie Appel, a Florida-based fitness expert who trains clients in a number of exercise regimens, including Spri, TRX Suspension, JumpSport and Resist-A-Ball, said it is not just older people who need to work on balance.
"Being older, your eyes are not as good, your ears are not as good and your body gets weaker," she said. "But everybody needs to train their balance. People who do balance training reduce their number of injuries, and improve their stability and strength."
She recited a horrifying statistic: More than 50% of American adults don't move enough, and 25% of American adults don't move at all -- except to walk to their cars, to their desks, then home to the couch, to the TV. Balance training can improve your body awareness, improve your posture and increase coordination and agility, she said. Balance training can also increase focus. "If you are able to control your body, you are able to control what you are doing, and you are able to control the different aspects of your life," she said.
Dr. Malcolm Taw at UCLA's East West Center, who specializes in integrative medicine and balance disorders, said the core theory of Chinese medicine is balance.
Allergies, temporomandibular joint disorder, tinnitus, dizziness and vertigo are all symptoms of imbalance. Those symptoms can be alleviated through acupuncture, which rebalances the body's internal systems, Taw said. But minor imbalances in the body can be rebalanced through lifestyle, diet, approach to life and daily activities, he said.
Yoga also is about finding the mind-body connection to live a healthier, more balanced life.
"Yoga, by nature, is about finding balance," said Laura Kupperman, a life coach and yoga therapist based in Boulder, Colo. "When you look at the yoga system, it is all about the physical practice of finding balance between effort and ease. It is not about practicing to get the perfect backbend. It is about practicing for the rest of your life -- for when you step off the mat."
Here are some recommendations to improve balance from these specialists.
Harvard's "Better Balance" report recommends walking workouts, sturdy shoes and reducing medications, which are listed in the report, that could cause balance problems. It also offers a series of simple exercise regimens (sitting, standing, balance in motion, balance on a beam, yoga balance) that require little more than a chair to get started. These exercises generally target an older, sedentary population and will not offer much to fitter, younger people. You can order the report for $20 at www.health.harvard.edu or download the PDF for $18.
Lifestyle, diet, amount and quality of sleep, stress management and exercise can all influence mental and physical balance, according to the tenets of Chinese medicine. While acupuncture can address specific imbalances, Taw also said a daily routine is important for health and balance. Whatever change you choose to make, start small. "If you think you need to work out, then just do 10 minutes a day, then work up to 20 minutes a day three days a week. I guarantee, then you will want to do more," he said. He said his staff also teaches patients to do self-acupressure, to improve the flow of chi, and to improve their sleep and manage stress. The patient learns to apply pressure to five essential points in the hand, foot, stomach, leg and around the ankle. He said acupuncture kick-starts the rebalancing process; patients must then work to change their lives. The approach is holistic, and if you want to change your life, this could be a way to ease into it, with a medical professional by your side.
All yoga works toward maintaining balance, but Kupperman, the yoga therapist, said building flexibility in the feet and ankles is key. For that she recommended exercises to improve core strength and "foot awareness." These poses will keep your feet supple and flexible, and strengthen the inner thighs and lower abdomen, where many people are weak.
Toes pose, or Thai goddess pose: Sit back on your heels, with your toes curled under. This stretches the plantar fascia, which goes up the heel and can pull the body out of alignment.
Palm tree: Start standing with arms at your side. Inhale and raise your arms from your sides and over your head, then exhale and lower your arms back down. Now repeat, but inhale up onto your toes, then back down again. This strengthens your core -- key to good balance. To intensify the exercise, place a block between your thighs and squeeze, then perform the exercise again. This adds stability and strengthens the thighs, the pelvic floor and the lower abdominal muscles.
Tabletop, or sunbird: Get on all fours, with your belly tucked in and your sacrum flat. Now, stretch your right arm out straight in front of you and your left leg straight out behind you. Switch sides.
These feel great and require no props. You can shut the door of your office, kick off your shoes and do a few poses -- and instantly feel better and more balanced.
Resist-A-Ball and Spri
Resist-A-Ball is a stability ball, and Spri's Step360 Pro is like a flat-bottomed half ball. "Anything on a ball, with a ball, is working your abs," Appel said. "That is core engagement. When you put any weight on it, just being in that position is requiring you to adjust and find your balance. You have no choice." Constantly adjusting as you work out on a ball forces you to react. "When you encounter something foreign, a new terrain, that is when you get injured," Appel said. "This strengthens muscles and helps you to be ready for the unexpected." These exercises lead most directly to better balance. They are low impact and powerful.
Studies, books, retreats and doctors repeat like a mantra that meditation -- any kind -- can reduce stress and, yes, improve balance. UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center offers classes as well as simple meditations ranging in length from five to 19 minutes that you can download onto your iPod or listen to on a computer at marc.ucla.edu.
When I am at wits' end, I go to the site and let the voice of Diana Winston, the center's director of mindfulness education, guide me through a meditation. It always helps. You don't need to go anywhere or pay any money. There is no excuse!