Being healthy and fit takes effort. We all know that there are many factors that contribute to living an overall healthy lifestyle, including diet, activity level, social well-being, managing stress levels, and being physically fit, just to name a few.

Physical fitness is an important factor that can improve one’s quality of life. There are several components that make up basic physical fitness: strength, flexibility, power, agility, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, co-ordination, and balance. I want to discuss the often overlooked, but extremely important component, balance. An astonishing fact: Falls are the second leading cause, after motor vehicle collisions, of injury-related hospitalizations for ALL ages, accounting for 29% of injury admissions. (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2004). Obviously, there are situations where falls cannot be prevented; however, frequently they can be avoided if we understand the underlying systems that contribute to balance.

Balance is the ability to control the body’s position. The body either controls its position statically, as in standing on one leg, or dynamically, as in walking on uneven or slippery surfaces. Several physiological systems work together to influence balance. Sensory input from the eyes detects changes in position. The inner ear controls balance by monitoring the position of your head (vestibular system). Our nervous system is involved in processing information which determines how quickly and efficiently we are able to respond. Our musculoskeletal system is also very important for balance. We need to have adequate joint range of motion, muscle flexibility and strength in our ankles, knees, hips, spine, and shoulders in order to safely and effectively ‘right’ ourselves when we are losing balance.

Balance dysfunctions can be addressed and treated, provided that your health care provider knows what system or systems are
involved in the balance problem. Once the source of the poor balance is identified, then your balance can be improved by improving the function of the impaired system. Occasionally the impaired system may not be able to be improved due to certain medical conditions. In that case, your balance can still be improved by enhancing the function of the systems that are already working well.

Even if you don’t have a serious balance dysfunction, it is still important to include balance training in your regular exercise routine. Many fitness centers have group fitness classes that incorporate balance in their sessions. Yoga and Tai Chi have also been shown to improve balance. If you understand the components of balance and seek out guidance to help you train your balance, you can significantly improve it, therefore reducing risks of falls or even minor injuries such as recurrent ankle sprains. Optimizing “balance” can contribute to improving and maintaining your quality of life!

**This article is not intended to act as medical advice, nor to diagnose or replace your current treatment. Please seek clearance and guidance from your licensed healthcare professional prior to participating in any of the tips, advice, practices or movements mentioned in this article.