For all of us upright posture and balance actually begins on our stomach and when we need to improve our posture or balance we should return to this position to once again kick-start our system.
Balance is not improved solely by how well you can stand on one foot, although that is an aspect of developing balance! This is no different than when your computer system gets slowed down with a virus and you need to reboot your computer to get it to function better. More often than not, some of the software will need to be reloaded. This is the same idea with the human body and the function of the vestibular system.
Balance is our primary, oldest sense. Balance is experienced as a result of the vestibular system. It is believed that the vestibular system is 0.6 billion years in development; whereas hearing is merely 0.3 billion years old. The responsibility of the vestibular system is to make orientation and postural behavior possible. It is what allows you to know where you are in space or where you are relative to gravity. The vestibular system is considered to have the most important role of all the senses with respect to every day function --- our ability to move and act against gravity.
It is this special awareness that allows all other adaptations in spacial judgment to become possible. In other words, it is what allows us to find the ball with the club head regardless of whether the ball is above or below our feet, whether our feet are at different levels or we are hitting from the short grass in the fairway or the soft sand in the bunker.
Figure 1: Ball above the feet in long rough
Our hearing developed from the organ associated with balance; and vision developed from both hearing and the vestibular organs. Without the vestibular system and balance there wouldn’t be stability of the image on the retina as our head moved. We would not be able to see!
These organs originated in the skin folds of the gills in ancient fish. In humans, around the 21st day of gestation the inner ear begins formation as plaques on the outside of the embryo’s head. This inner ear then divides to form two interconnected structures. The upper part forms the three hollow semi-circular canals that are arranged at right angles to each other and provide our balance mechanism. Each of these canals recognizes movement of the head in specific planes.
One recognizes horizontal movement around a vertical axis (spinning or turning our heads), one responds to forward and backward movement around a horizontal axis (nodding, rocking) and one to tilting such as standing on a wobble board tilting side to side.
Figure 2: The inner ear and vestibular system
The small organs responsible for vestibular function are found in the mastoid bone and are known as the utricle, saccule, semicircular canals (think of these like natural inclinometers) and the vestibular nuclei of the medulla and pons of our brain stem.
How we perceive movement:
The utricle and saccule monitor the static equilibrium of the body and it is within the walls of the utricle and saccule that the fluid and the hair cells are located. Within the fluid are otoliths (crystals), which move in response to head movement and pull the fluid with them. This movement of the crystal within the fluid results in bending of the hair cells and initiation of activity within the vestibular nerve. The vestibular nerve sends this head movement information to the brain, which then sends the information through nerve tracks to the cerebellum. Within the cerebellum it is determined which corrective adjustments need to occur including muscle activity and eye movements. This system connects either directly or indirectly to every muscle in the body and causes the motor system to increase or decrease its impulses to specific muscles.
This is especially true of CORE MUSCLE and NECK MUSCLE activation (contract) or inhibition (relax)!!!!
In this way the vestibular system controls the rest of the body by adjusting the activation levels of the muscles supporting the spine in response to deviations in head position with respect to the ground.
In other words, to increase the function of our core we must increase the effectiveness of our vestibular system!!! So why don’t more people train their vestibular system when trying to improve core function or rehab spinal injuries?!?
The cranial nerve VIII (vestibule-cochlear nerve) is the first nerve to develop and stems directly from this system. The early development of this nerve is necessary as the vestibular system is either directly or indirectly influencing everything we do.
The impulses sent by the vestibular apparatus to the developing brain will become projections to centers within the brain controlling posture, body movement, arousal, eye movements, and sensory integration.
We must recognize that balance is not automatic or a singular something that we posses. We are constantly adapting and manipulating our bodies to maintain balance. Balance is not something we achieve around our 1st birthday when we first stand on our own two feet unsupported but rather is earned throughout our early development when we are rocking, rolling and crawling.
Other mammals continue to master their balance for the rest of their lives once it is earned. We, however, slowly lose our mastery during the countless hours our body, head and eyes spend motionless while we sit in these sedentary times.
The work that we do to earn balance results in these specific neural pathways becoming increasingly myleinated (myelin is a fatty substance that insulates nerves and increases the efficiency and speed of information travel along the nerve). This maturity in the nervous system is what allows for the development of muscle tone, postural control, cross-talk and integration with the other senses. Balance must work in conjunction with hearing, vision, touch, neuromuscular awareness (kinesthesia/esis), to develop one’s awareness of their place in space. These systems can not work in isolation but must partner with the vestibular system. We must train our vestibular system through movement before the vestibular system can become the master controller of movement.
Take home point:
In order for the function of our body to improve, the responsiveness and accuracy of our vestibular system must improve. If you are performing a golf fitness program of any kind and do not have exercise specifically chosen to improve the function of your vestibular system you will only obtain a minimum amount of improvement on the golf course for all the time you spend in the gym.
When we first learn a new skill or movement we are clumsy and our movement is often poorly controlled and lacking precision. As we repeat the movement we get better quality responses through the direction of the vestibular system until we “master” that movement. But anyone who has ever “mastered” a movement skill can tell you that if they neglected the practice of that skill set their movements deteriorated and further practice was required to regain the mastery.
Unfortunately, most of us only appreciate the need to practice in order to continue mastery of movement as it relates to what we think of as “special or unnecessary movements” (sports or other movements unnecessary to success in life). However, if you look at your parents walking or getting up out of a chair or off the floor you can see that unless we remain active and perform fundamental patterns we lose our efficiency and become less masterful.
For all of us, our first playground was the floor our parents placed us on. We learned how long we were by lying on our back and kicking our feet, we learned how wide we were by lying on our back and waving our arms around. This was our way of learning proprioception.
The ability to determine where one part of our body is relative to another is an important skill that we use every day of our lives. It is what allows us to move our hand behind our head and brush our heads, it is what allows us to hit a fade away jump shot and it is what allows us to know and appreciate our golf swing. Without a strong awareness of one’s inner self, we would have inconsistent movements in our golf swing leading to some shots being shorter, longer, left, right, higher or lower than we want… oh wait, that’s a problem for most of us!
The truth is most of us do not have a detailed map of our inner self due to the complacent lifestyle we live in our modern world. Unfortunately the problem is escalating with each generation, the average individual, having a less and less detailed body map as technology and modern learning mechanisms (sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day) rob us of our hard-earned body map. With many school boards removing or limiting physical education and music from the curriculum this problem will become even more exaggerated with the present generation.
Secure balance is inseparable from the development of postural control, which in turn is supported by information from the visual, proprioceptive and motor systems. Expansion of the vestibular system, although the first of our senses to begin to develop does not mature until at least the age of seven and even after that can be increased, lost or maintained depending on our activity and movement choices. Balance gives us our information regarding the position of our body in space.
Stimulating our vestibular system has the following positive benefits:
- helps to develop inhibitory mechanisms as a result of habituation (with practice muscles that do not need to work are turned down or off so that you don’t need to fight the resistance they create when they are active when you try to move)
- helps to improve postural reactions in response to movement and gravitational challenges that are inseparable from balance
- promotes better integration of the other sensory systems
- promotes stability of the retinal image as a result of improvement and maturation of the vestibular-ocular-reflex (VOR), thereby providing a basis for stable eye movements.
How do we train balance?
- Up and down movements such as jumping. squatting or skipping
- To and fro movements such as running, starting and stopping and swinging
- Turning movements like rolling, dancing, and spinning, somersaulting and other gymnastic movements
- Depth such as riding on a moving object or catching objects moving towards you
Like most things in life the concept of use it or lose it comes into play with the vestibular system. The fluid in the canals tends to thicken as we get older and this has some pretty obvious consequences. Think about people riding roller coasters. Children love them but adults would much rather watch their children go on the rides. Why is this? Well, as we get older and limit the amount of times we adjust our head position and use the vestibular system (no, staring at your computer screen, a book or television does not challenge the vestibular system) the fluid becomes more dense. The increased density causes the hair cells to be bent for longer periods of time for a specific deviation and therefore the stimulus to the vestibular nerve is exaggerated in length thus confusing the system and our bodies respond by feeling ill. This is the vestibular systems way of showing it is “sick”.
It is for this reason that regular activation of the vestibular system through exercises like yoga, Tai Chi, swimming or bike riding is useful.
In the following sections of the Fundamental Series we will prescribe exercise components of the vestibular and core reboot. In the first section of the Reptile Series we will focus on breathing.