Editor’s note: In his recent article for Epic Kayaks In Search of Stability: Aging Gracefully With a Wider Surfski Honorary Tsunami Ranger Kenny Howell emphasized balance and stability as two things critical for paddling, especially in a surf ski. These are two things that can fade as we age. As a fitness trainer I’ve seen the impacts of lessened balance in older clients, but with a few simple drills, balance and stability can be maintained and even revitalized. This article is the first in a four part series on tools and techniques to improve balance and stability at any age. Thanks to Kenny for a great article that triggered this series, and to my good friend Sue Heist for the modeling.
The tools I’m going to share have kept me active. At 64 years old I’m still improving as kayaker and a downhill skier. I also run up and down the stairs in my tri-level home, maintain a large garden, and do minor forestry projects on the steep lot. One of my tools is information gleaned from 25 years in the health and fitness industry, training both athletes and lay people. Other tools are some useful pieces of equipment that stayed with me when I retired my personal fitness training studio in Moss Beach, CA. With information, a wobble board, a stability ball, a foam roller, and a Pilates ring, I’ve got all the tools I need to maintain balance and stability for a lifetime of paddling and other activities.
How do we balance? In order to balance we need to know where our bodies are in space (kinesiological awareness). Kinesiological awareness is due to proprioception. Proprioception is basically a continuous feedback loop between sensory receptors throughout the body and the nervous system. These sensory receptors are called proprioceptors.
Proprioceptors are specialized sensory receptors on nerve endings found in muscles, tendons, joints and the inner ear. Proprioceptors detect subtle changes in the environment, in movement, position, tension and force, and send that information to the brain. The main function of proprioception is to prevent injury. Proprioception does this by providing information about the movement and positioning of our body, head, arms and legs, thus triggering protective reflexes. When proprioception is optimal, we can generally move around our environment without tripping, falling, or bashing into things.
How is proprioception compromised? Neurological, muscular, sensory, and degenerative reasons can cause decreased proprioception. Muscular injury can damage proprioceptors so they don’t work properly. For example, someone sprains an ankle, damaging the proprioceptors in that area. Without appropriate rehab, they may not heal. Scar tissue may develop so that the ankle is stiff and range of motion is reduced. Proprioception is also reduced, so there is greater likelihood of stumbling, falling, and re-injury.
There are many ways to address reduced proprioception, but for the purpose of this series I’m going to focus on techniques I’ve used on myself, clients and friends to successfully improve balance and stability. We’ll focus on two approaches: techniques for specifically benefitting balance and stability, and techniques to develop the body’s core, which is key to good balance. In this article we’ll start with balance drills using the wobble board and the floor.
The wobble board
Wobble boards are awesome. Cheap, simple, and easy to use, there are a few basic drills you can do with a wobble board that work wonders for your stability. I recently loaned mine to a friend in her early 70’s who was finding it difficult to balance. She’s my main ski buddy so we couldn’t have her falling down. After two weeks of a little daily practice with the board, her difficulties ceased.
Here’s the first set of drills:
- Use the two wooden screw-in balls. Stand on the board so that your feet are about hip distance apart and when it tips your heels go down, your toes go up, and your ankles flex. Bend your knees slightly and soften your hips. Keep your body upright and look straight ahead. It helps to keep your eyes on an object or a spot on the wall in front of you. Stay relaxed and breathe smoothly and rhythmically as you slowly rock back and forth, touching the back and then the front of the board to the floor. Work on doing the movements softly and smoothly so that the board touches down gently with control. It may be jerky at first, and if you feel wobbly, it’s ok to place a hand on a nearby wall, but maintain good posture throughout the exercise. With practice, instability will pass and the movements get smoother.
- Now turn the board the other way so that when you stand on it, it rocks from side to side and one foot goes down as the other goes up. Again, use good posture and stand with your feet about hip distance apart and with your knees and hips soft and slightly flexed. Press down first with one foot and then the other so that the sides of the board touch down gently and softly, first on one side and then the other.
Note: do both these drills about 10 times each. Rocking back and forth or side to side once each side is one repetition. Again, it’s ok to place a hand on a wall or a piece of furniture at first if you’re feeling unstable, but maintain good posture as though balancing a book on your head. If you want a real challenge you can place a bean bag or an actual book on your head when you’re proficient, but that’s not necessary to functionally improve balance.
Here’s the second set of drills:
- Unscrew the small wooden balls and set them aside. Use the small plastic ball and place it in the hole in the board. Stand on the board with feet about hip distance apart, knees and hips softly flexed and body upright. Look straight ahead. Part of the edge of the board will be on the floor at all times; the rest will not touch down. Pressing through your feet, slowly rotate the edge of the board so that it rolls around on the floor smoothly in a circle. As you roll the board around, first one foot and then the other will rise and fall, a little like pedaling a bicycle. You will migrate in one direction so that you end up facing a different direction from that where you started. When you’ve done 6 – 10 full circles, switch directions. You’ll end up facing back where you started.
- When you’re proficient at using the small ball, switch to the larger ball. The larger ball creates a much more acute angle in the ankles and will really stretch your calves and Achilles tendons. It’s harder to do, and may not be necessary to functionally improve your balance.
Note: Again, if you feel unstable, it’s ok to place a hand on something solid for support. It’s super important to use good posture. Eyes level, chin and chest lifted, hips and knees soft! Breathe slowly and rhythmically. If your breath changes or your movements are jerky, slow down or take a break. Smooth breathing aids smooth movements. At first these drills may seem challenging but with a little patience they get easier.
Here’s the third set of drills:
- Use the two wooden balls. Stand on one foot and place the other right in the middle of the board. Gently rock the board back and forth with your foot. Then switch feet. This is the same as the first drill, but just using one foot.
- Unscrew the two wooden balls and set them aside. Place the small ball in the hole in the board and, standing on one foot, place the other foot right in the middle of the board. Slowly and gently rotate the board in a circle using your foot. Your foot will turn with the board so that you will have to move the standing foot to accommodate the rotation or you’ll have to reverse directions. Up to you.
Note: All the above directions about breathe and posture apply to each drill. Movements should be fairly slow. It’s a challenge to make the board move slowly, smoothly, gently, and continuously and occasionally there’ll be bumps and abrupt movements, but that’s normal and will pass with practice.
Here’s the last drill:
- Lie on your back where you can be comfortable on the floor. With your arms by your sides and your feet in the air, point and flex your feet as far as you comfortably can in each direction. As you flex, your shins may feel a little sore at first. You can watch the muscles working as you stretch up with your heels and your toes come down. After 10 repetitions (point and flex is one rep), rotate both feet to the outside in opposite directions. Again, go slowly and find the fullest range of motion in your ankles. After 10 complete circles, switch directions and do 10 more reps to the inside. Then rotate both feet to the left for 10 reps. Switch directions and rotate both feet to the right. Then point and flex both feet simultaneously for 10 more reps. After these drills I like to shake my legs out with my feet still in the air, letting my feet loosely flop.
Notice that this last set of movements is basically a variation of the first three drills, done lying on the back with the feet in the air. This has an advantage in that you don’t need a wobble board to take your feet through the movements. The wobble board is more effective in improving balance and stability, but the floor drills are useful too. Doing these movements and taking the ankles through their full ranges of motion is definitely beneficial. It’s important to keep the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower legs and feet supple and flexible to protect the proprioceptors and maintain balance and stability. In addition to wrist and shoulder stretches, I do these exercises weekly in the steam room at Jackson Wellsprings here in Ashland. Bliss!
There are many other ways to maintain and improve balance and stability at any age. Wobble boards can help. Physiotherapy is also beneficial. Acupuncture, exercise therapy, both active and passive movements, strength training, massage, and even injections and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) can be used. All these will:
- Improve sensation.
- Maintain muscle strength.
- Prevent muscle wasting.
- Reduce risk of falling.
- Reduce your risk of injury.
- Maintain postural stability.
Maintaining balance and stability, or working to improve them if you find yours deteriorating, not only helps you be more balanced and stable in your work, home, and sports, but you also gain confidence by finding yourself more agile and responsive to changes in your environment. The benefits can be as simple as stepping on a pine cone while hiking. Previous to doing your exercises, you might have fallen or twisted your ankle. Instead, your ankle goes through a rolling movement it’s already very familiar with and perfectly capable of doing, and you walk on unperturbed.
In this article we’ve covered balance and stability drills for ankles and feet. These drills will improve your balance and stability because they engage the whole body and the mind. Done once or twice a day for 6 to 10 repetitions each these drills can be extremely effective. Done once a week they still help. You can go right to the wobble board or prep for it by starting on the floor and accustoming your feet and ankles to the movements. If using two feet on the board is difficult, you can begin by using one foot at a time. You can even borrow techniques from Feldenkrais and refine the movements thinking about the big toe, or thinking about the pinky toe as you move slowly through the drills. Placing a bean bag on your head while using the wobble board adds an element of challenge once you’ve become proficient.
There are lots of different wobble boards on the market, and they’re all useful. The one in this article is made by Chango, and I like it because the different balls give you different options. You can go forward and back, side to side, and around using different angles and directions. You can use one foot or two. You can also use the yellow plastic balls as massage balls for the bottoms of your feet. I’ve found them very effective at treating plantar faciitis. You can find the Chango board here: https://www.prohealthcareproducts.com/chango-r4-rocker-wobble-board/
Incidentally, we have two great posts on this site by surfski racer Tsunami Ranger Don Kiesling. Don talks about all aspects of surfski racing, including fitness. You can read Part One here: https://tsunamirangers.com/?s=surfski+racing+part+1 and Part Two here: https://tsunamirangers.com/2011/02/01/surfski-racing-part-2/
Next up in this series: techniques to maintain and improve balance and stability using a stability ball. This post will appear on Monday, September 5. Please use these suggestions and your creativity and intuition to devise an appropriate workout for yourself, or contact a personal fitness trainer or physiotherapist near you. For questions or comments about balance and stability training, please contact us below or click the “Contact Us” button above. Thanks!