Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense by Scott McCredie

I just read Natalie Angier‘s October 27, 2008 New York Times article “The Unappreciated, Holding Our Lives in Balance” which made me think of Scott McCredie’s Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense. (Which, of course, I read after I heard about it in the New York Times; click here to read Daniel Smith’s New York Times review titled “Without a Net” and published August 19, 2007.)

While I don’t have any notes on this book (I read Balance before I started this blog), I remember finding this book thoughtful and well-written. While I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with McCredie that Balance should be considered the sixth sense, McCredie did convincingly argue balance’s importance on normal human function.

The book managed to be both educational and entertaining. The stories of Karl Wallenda were sweet while stories of pilot’s disorientation (and how balance was a contributing factor in the death of John F. Kennedy Jr) were tragic.

I’ve always had a poor sense of balance despite my love of yoga. So I appreciated McCredie’s appendix of exercises. The New York Times (of course) published a great article by Jane Brody in January titled “Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance” with simple balance exercises:

To increase stability and strengthen the legs, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms straight out in front. Lift one foot behind, bending the knee at 45 degrees. Hold that position for five seconds or longer, if possible.

Repeat this exercise five times. Then switch legs. As you improve, try one-leg stands with your eyes closed.

Sit-to-stand exercises once or twice a day increase ankle, leg and hip strength and help the body adjust to changes in position without becoming dizzy after being sedentary for a long time. Sit straight in a firm chair (do not lean against the back) with arms crossed. Stand up straight and sit down again as quickly as you can without using your arms. Repeat the exercise three times and build to 10 repetitions.

Heel-to-toe tandem walking is another anytime exercise, resembling plank walking popular with young children. It is best done on a firm, uncarpeted floor. With stomach muscles tight and chin tucked in, place one foot in front of the other such that the heel of the front foot nearly touches the toe of the back foot. Walk 10 or more feet and repeat the exercise once or twice a day.

Also try walking on your toes and then walking on your heels to strengthen your ankles.

Another helpful exercise is sidestepping. Facing a wall, step sideways with one leg (bring the other foot to it) 10 times in each direction. After mastering that, try a dancelike maneuver that starts with sidestepping once to the right. Then cross the left leg behind, sidestep to the right again and cross the left leg in front. Repeat this 10 times. Then do it in the other direction.

So in addition to your normal workout, make sure you aren’t neglecting your vestibular system! Perform this test to assess your current balance:

  1. Stand straight, wearing flat, closed shoes, with your arms folded across your chest. Raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees, start a stopwatch and close your eyes.
  2. Remain on one leg, stopping the watch immediately if you uncross your arms, tilt sideways more than 45 degrees, move the leg you are standing on or touch the raised leg to the floor.
  3. Repeat this test with the other leg.
  4. Now, compare your performance to the norms for various ages:
    • 20 to 49 years old: 24 to 28 seconds.
    • 50 to 59 years: 21 seconds.
    • 60 to 69 years: 10 seconds.
    • 70 to 79 years: 4 seconds.
    • 80 and older: most cannot do it at all.

Click here to view the table of contents and download an excerpt from the author’s website or here to view the author’s FAQ.

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