Bodies in Motion: Balancing Act, by Kevin McGrath

I’m watching the Super Bowl and the running back takes the hand-off, racing to the right side where he sharply cuts upfield through the hole that his lineman opened for him. As he emerges from the hole, it quickly closes with a linebacker exploding into him. He astonishingly spins out of the tackler’s arms, keeping his footing and darting another five yards out of bounds, getting a key first down for his team.

Two nights later, I’m watching my favorite hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings, on TV when Dylan Larkin catches a crisp pass on his stick, leaning hard into the defenseman who is all over him, all the while firing a bullet at the opposing team’s net.

The next night, I’m at my Marquette City basketball game. At age fifty-nine, I play on a team with mostly 35 to 38-year-olds. We’re playing against the youngest team in the league, whose players average 28 years. We get a turnover and start a break-away during which a quick pass comes my way. It’s slightly deflected, causing me to spin my upper torso while running in the other direction. I lose my footing and fall hard to the ground as the ball bounces off my arm and out of bounds.

All of these situations have something in common, something that most of us take for granted – balance! As Wikipedia explains, “In biomechanics, balance is the ability to maintain the line of gravity (vertical line to the center of mass) of the body within the base of support with minimal postural support.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balance_(ability))

Many factors come into play to achieve good balance, which requires the coordination of input from multiple sensory systems. These systems include but are not limited to sense organs, as well as pressure and vibratory senses, skin, joints, plus visual senses that all work in unity, detecting changes in spatial orientation in relation to the base of support, whether the body moves or the base is altered in some way. Environmental factors such as surface and lighting conditions, ear infections, alcohol, some medications, and other drug use also impact balance.

As important as balance is, most people take it for granted. Have you ever misjudged the height of a curb while walking down the street, or caught your shoe on a raised crack in the sidewalk? There are various levels of stability, and while as an athlete, my ability to stay upright is pretty good, I’m still quite impressed by some of the people I see paddle boarding, snowboarding, surfing, downhill skiing or acrobatic skateboarding. Nonetheless, as with muscle tone, our balance typically declines with age. For example, my elderly aunt misjudged the second step going up to my brother’s house, lost her balance, and fell of the porch, breaking her hip.

As a lifelong athlete and a former coach, it is clear to me that my balance isn’t what it used to be. I also realize there are a slew of ways to improve it. One favorite that comes to mind is the dot drill. I place four dots forming a square on the floor, roughly three feet apart with another dot in the middle of them all. I begin by standing on the middle dot and then jumping with both feet to the upper right dot and back to the middle, then to the lower right dot and back to middle, followed by the lower left dot and returning to the middle, then up to the upper left dot and back to the middle. I repeat this clockwise sequence three times, followed by the same movements in a counter-clockwise sequence three times. Once I’m able to do that confidently without pause, I work toward doing it with a one-legged hop, changing legs when I change direction from clockwise to counterclockwise.

Zumba, yoga, tai chi or any other fitness class with trained professionals able to assist you in realizing your goals can also help you make great strides in improving your balance. Key here is finding what works best for you, whether done at home or with a group.

For me, quality of life is essential, and that doesn’t happen by doing nothing. In order to improve, you must practice. That’s a good reminder to me. While we may automatically pay more attention to having a healthier diet, or working on muscle tone as we age, it’s extremely important to work on balance improvement too. Our quality of life lies in the balance.

Kevin McGrath believes that life is a balancing act, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. He can be found stumbling his way through it.

Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

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