The other day, in our kitchen, I stepped back from the granite island towards the stove. In doing so, my legs moved in order, right leg first followed by left leg and I was now in a significantly different spot and I turned to open a drawer filled with spatulas and ladles. As I picked up the slotted long handled spoon that I often use to scoop out rice and beans from a pot, I suddenly froze as I remembered that I had just stepped back from the granite island, without using the cane I normally have nearby, without any mobility aid at all. Stepping back, not looking at the direction I am moving in, trusting my brain-body combo to get me there in one piece and upright. I had to chalk that one up in the win column.
Yesterday, on a streetcar travelling south on Broadview heading to a wedding, I ring the bell and stand, with my cane in hand, to head for the door, one leg moving confidently ahead, the second leg not quite finding a firm footing in the sliding shift movement of the street car and there I am almost tumbling down into the lap of a small child. Her look of terror at what might be about to happen and my sense of chagrin and embarrassment at not being able to stand steady on a moving streetcar resulted in me silently adding one to the loss column. But then I thought, well, maybe a tie...I didn't actually fall and no small children were injured in the construction of this life lesson.
Another week in my seemingly never-ending effort to conquer a very particular part of walking, maintaining my balance. Balance is about more than not falling though not falling is a big plus.
Trying to stay balanced is almost like using a yo-yo...it's harder than it looks and easier if you don't think about what you are trying to do. Sometimes, when I am walking, I catch myself in a stumble and when I do, I try and understand why I almost fell, why I almost lost my balance. Balance is about much more than a single activity, it is more like a process. It involves muscles and nerves in the legs and feet, eye and ear coordination, a highly tuned sense of space, some very complicated, very fast calculations by the brain with extensive feedback between the brain, the nervous system and the entire musculoskeletal system.
Balance is actually much more than a mere physical activity; it is a vital indicator of health and prospect. There is a reason the notion of balance gets used in so many contexts. It is about keeping things (mental, social, physical ) on track, on an even keel, so to speak. If you lose your sense of balance, in any one or all of the senses of the word, bad things can and do happen. As you can imagine, and as I have learned, there are all kinds of ways that balance can go wrong. But there is some very encouraging news about how balance can be improved through exercising and challenges.
This is something I learned in physio. Almost from day one Vaiva had me standing on foam, wood, and plastic boards, mats and beams. Some were pivoted on balls, some on half balls, sometimes she put me on trampolines. The idea was, learn to walk,step, balance and move back and forth by challenging the mind and body to conquer all of this. Improving balance is like most exercises; you get better through the doing.
Alex Hutchinson is a writer and a runner and he had a fantastic column in the New York Times a few days ago where he laid out his own experience and some of the fascinating new research going on in the science/medicine of balance. It is a fascinating read and as is true of much of scientific research, the news is good, change is possible.
I know that is true because a few days ago, I stepped back without thinking from the granite island in our kitchen....