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October 1999

Steady Rock Hopping

If rock hopping or log crossing triggers panic, maybe you need to fine-tune your balancing act.

For as long as I can remember, feats of uncommon balance have been as humdrum for my family as mowing the lawn. My brother used to ride a unicycle around the backyard with a pet monkey on his head, and I once watched my 60-year-old father stroll nonchalantly along the skinny side of a 2 x 6 suspended high off the ground. Maybe that’s why I think nothing of rock hopping across a rushing creek with a 40-pound load on

my back, or bouncing up and down on a rickety rope bridge just for fun.

I’ve sometimes thought that I must be especially endowed with tightrope-

walking genes. And because of this, I’ve felt sorry for friends who teeter on disaster at every stream or log crossing. Does a DNA imbalance doom them to scooting across downed trees on their butts?

It turns out that inheritance doesn’t play a role in balance, according to Tonya Toole, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition, and Movement Sciences at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who specializes in human motor control. “Many factors determine good balance, including age, muscular strength, use of visual cues, range of motion in the joints, and kinesthetic perception, for starters.”

To understand how all these factors work in concert, think of one of the most basic laws of physics: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Now, translate that principle to your bodily movements. As soon as you start walking, your center of balance shifts and your muscles, tendons, and ligaments make instantaneous adjustments to counteract that movement. In essence, with each step you’re losing, correcting, and regaining your balance.

But how does your body know to flail the left arm when a creek bank gives way under your right foot? Simply put, your body automatically gathers information from the inner ear, from visual cues, and from a finely tuned system known as proprioception, which constantly monitors the location of all your various body parts.

When all these cogs of the balance machine are in optimum working order, our bodies have an amazing ability to negotiate obstacles and stay upright in the face of sudden surprises. Start adding variables like unstable footing, poor visibility, or fatigue, and maintaining your balance becomes more challenging. Pile on a 45-pound backpack that shifts your natural center of gravity, and your body’s mechanisms for maintaining equilibrium are really put to the test.

“The center of mass is pulled back” by a weighty pack, says Dr. Toole, who’s an avid hiker, “making balance more difficult when you need to take larger steps up and down, such as when maneuvering over rocks.” That’s why maintaining strong torso and leg muscles is particularly critical to good balance, she adds.

Most people know they’re more likely to stumble at the end of a long day when their legs are tired. According to Dr. Toole and other researchers, other factors can also

contribute to falls and balance deterioration, including medication you may be taking, heart disease, an inner ear inflammation, poor proprioception, and the glasses you may be wearing (such as looking through bifocals while walking on the trail). Even lack of confidence can hamper your body’s attempts to stay on top of things.

So how can you tell if your balance needs a tune-up? Frequent stumbling over roots and rocks in the trail is one clue, says Dr. Toole. Or try the “test” suggested in “Simple Steps To Better Balance.” Regardless of how you fare, bear in mind that researchers believe most of us reach our equilibrium zenith sometime in our teens. After 30, we’re all playing beat the clock, so keeping your balance in top shape is essential to feeling confident and staying injury-free.

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