When was the last time you tried to balance on one leg or walk on a balance beam?

For most of us, it’s probably been a while since we challenged or even really paid attention to our balance. The following explains why you should.

Did you know 20 to 30 per cent of seniors in Nova Scotia will fall this year and about half of those falls will result in serious injury (e.g. head trauma, fractures, etc.)? Some of those people will be aware of their declining balance and agility, but many will not. Proprioception is a key factor in maintaining our balance; it is the body’s ability to know where it is in space and how to control its movement accordingly.

As a physiotherapist, I do a lot of work with people to improve their proprioception. It is highly trainable and partners with your strength to keep you upright. For instance, when your foot steps on a tree root and your ankle starts to roll, small receptors in your ankle signal to your brain what is happening and your brain turns on the appropriate muscles to prevent you from spraining your ankle. Two key things need to happen in this scenario: the signals from your joint to your brain need to be fast and your muscles need to be fast and strong enough to make the correction.

Intrigued? Want to test out your proprioception? Here’s how:

Self-test 1 (the flamingo)

Stand in front of your countertop, with your hands on top and feet hip width apart.
Lift one foot off the ground.
Lift your hands slightly off the countertop, but stay close enough to grab it if you need to steady yourself.
The goal is to stand on one leg for 20 seconds without needing to use your hands.

Self-test 2 (sit to stand)

Sit in a kitchen chair that is pushed up against a wall (so it can’t slide backwards).
Try to stand up and sit down several times without using your hands.

Note :Do not try either of these tests if you feel unsafe.

The first test will give you a good sense of how your proprioceptive signalling system is working and the second test indicates your leg strength. The relevance of the second test is more obvious because it’s a movement we use daily. However, the single-leg stand is also integral to how we move; every step we take includes a single-leg stance phase and each time we go up and down stairs, we are balancing on one leg.

If you have difficulty with either of these tests, consider consulting a physiotherapist to learn balance and strengthening exercises that are appropriate for you. You might also consider taking up tai chi, since it’s been shown to have significant benefits to the balance system.

Remember, the proprioceptive system is trainable. Take action to improve your confidence in movement and reduce your risk of falling.