Balance is not just standing upright, and then not falling over. It is much more. Tai Chi and Qigong as a form of exercise, emphasizes body balance through movement. In most martial arts, one of the many goals is to keep you in balance, and put the other person off balance. However, much more is going on inside the body, than just doing Tai Chi and Qigong movements. So why is balance important, and why should people practice balancing exercises?
Photo courtesy of Raymond Sol
Most people will fall several times throughout their lives. Usually, when people fall, they pick themselves up and keeping going. Children may shed a few tears; young adults (slightly embarrassed) grit their teeth and move on. However, for some adults broken bones are a possibility. And for older adults (65 years or older) falls may even lead to death. (Harvard Health Publications, 2012)
So as people grow older, balance is important for good health. Working to improve your balance is more than just good posture. Therefore, understanding how your body works to balance itself is important, and why exercise will help improve body balance.
Briefly, the brain and spinal cord, along with other body systems which work together, help to improve balance. There are four main body systems working to help keep you balanced. The cerebellum manages the signals coming from the body's nerves, via the spinal cord, and relays information back to the nerves in the muscles. These return signals help balance the body and also help with body movement. The vestibular systems in the middle ear help the brain understand the position of the head by sending signals via the acoustic nerve. These signals tell when the head is leaning forward, backward, or side to side. The visual system, via the optic nerve, also helps the brain understand where the body is in relation to its surroundings. These signals will tell the brain if the body is leaning, one way or another, from an upright position. Nerves in muscles and tendons, called proprioceptors, sense where your body is in relation to the space around you, and via the nervous system, sends information to the cerebellum for processing. These muscle signals travel quickly back and forth, and help your body balance itself. (Harvard Health Publications, 2012)
That's why as people age, if they stop being active, these systems can grow stagnant. Reaction times can become slower, and muscles weaker. Exercising will help keep all these systems operating well. If you don't use it, you lose it. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong exercises will help all these body systems stay sharp, and improve body balance.