Balance is way more complicated than I’d ever thought: muscles, joints, the inner ear, eyes, brain and skin. They must all work together through a constant process of position detection, feedback and adjustment in order for us to go about our daily lives without dizziness or falling over. It’s frankly remarkable that we manage at all – so much is involved in even the simplest of movements!
One of the less understood areas of balance is what goes on in the inner ear – the ‘vestibular system’. So last Wednesday a group of us Bristol and Bath instructors gathered together to learn a bit more about this part of our body from audiologist Jonathan Doyle.
The first thing we learned was that the inner ear is involved every time you move your head. Tilting your cranium forwards, backwards, side-to-side, and rotating all relies on the vestibular system. It’s an incredibly complex and delicate system and if it isn’t working properly you can end up with vertigo.
Feeling dizzy or sick (or even falling over) isn’t much fun and if you suffer from this it’s worth contacting an audiologist as they can diagnose and treat hearing and inner ear problems. There are, however, a couple of simple home tests you can do to see how strong your vestibular system is (be careful as you need to do them with your eyes closed).
1. Heel/toe standing test
Stand with one foot in front of the other as in the picture above. Close your eyes and see how long you can hold it for. 5-10 seconds is good. Try with the other foot in front.
2. Marching on the spot with eyes closed
Start walking on the spot with your arms extended, then close your eyes. Try and lift your legs as high as possible and keep marching for one minute. Open your eyes and see if you have stayed facing forwards or if you’ve significantly rotated to your left or right. If you’ve rotated more than about 45 degrees then you may well have an inner ear weakness on the side you rotated to. It’s worth noting that orthotics/leg length/hip or knee problems can skew the result so just use this test as a general guide.
As well as these simple tests, Jonathan also showed us a few exercises that can help strengthen inner ear balance. They may sound straightforward but you have to do them with your eyes closed!
- Torso twists;
- Bend down/lean back; and
- Full circle one way then the other.
So we have a few new exercises to add to our ‘Brains and Balance’ sessions for your delectation.
You can find our favourite Nordic walking poles here and if you’re looking for our advice on best walking kit here’s our recommendations: