The Key to Balance May Come from Your Past
Why emulating your younger self could help you move better.
Photo by Denafi Sy on Pexels
After a certain age, balance no longer comes naturally and requires more cognition and awareness for its preservation. Moreover, the mind-body connection is central to one’s equilibrium, with lack of poise suggesting balance issues may be present. Brad Manor, PhD, associate director of the Mobility and Falls Translational Research Center with Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife, calls balance “a complex system” involving many factors. “As people age, changes in flexibility, muscle strength and power, body sensation, reflexes, and even mental function all contribute to declining balance.”
Conversely, small children exemplify balance and poise effortlessly. They can run, play, get up, sit back down, and do all of it again several times over with great ease and mobility. Toddlers maintain upright posture without difficulty (thanks to good balance and coordination) because they haven’t yet been exposed to excessive sitting — particularly sitting in chairs. School is the first place young children learn to sit for hours on end, which negatively impacts their developing bodies.
The extent of our current sedentary lifestyle has exacerbated an already stationary culture for children and adults alike. The most pervasive, disruptive-of-natural-balance habit in the Western world is sitting. “We spend, on average, 11 hours a day in intimate contact with chairs, and they are reshaping us for the worse,” says Turner Osler, MD, academic trauma surgeon and research epidemiologist at the University of Vermont.
Rather than slump farther into your chair feeling despondent over one more thing to worry about, it might be beneficial to take a trip down your body’s memory lane instead. You might remember playing on the floor for hours without any back support as a child. Perhaps your gait was more of a sprint than a shuffle. Your head likely sat poised atop your body, looking out in front of you — instead of down at the floor (or phone).
The most pervasive, disruptive-of-natural-balance habit in the Western world is sitting.
These are just a few examples of the agility seen in small children, all of which make it rare to encounter a toddler complaining of back pain, imbalance, or posture issues.
Understanding posture and why it matters
When most people speak of posture, they think of positioning or holding their body upright — much like a soldier. Namely, tensing and tightening the body in an attempt to be “straight.” Since the spine has a natural, inherent curvature, that’s essentially impossible to achieve.
If good posture can only be acquired by holding the body in a specific pose, what does that say about the rest of the time? Do you only have good posture when you arch your back to stand like a soldier? Do you lose it once you slouch in front of a computer?
Posture is actually more akin to balance — it is fluid, not fixed. It is a state of being, rather than a snapshot of a pose. Just as the small child maintains fluidity while running around with their head beautifully balanced, good posture carries over into other activities like sitting on the floor for hours without back support.
The child’s young body hasn’t yet accrued years of stress, tension, and sitting in chairs. Therefore, what you see when you look at them is ease. They don’t need to stand like a soldier to prove they have good posture — they are the embodiment of balance and coordination.
Posture is actually more akin to balance — it is fluid, not fixed. It is a state of being, rather than a snapshot of a pose.
Get to know your sit bones
When you were very young, you likely sat on your ischial tuberosity, or sit bones, without realizing it. That’s one of the reasons you could play on the floor for hours without leaning on anything for back support. Resting on your sit bones enabled you to sit upright. You were naturally balanced because you used your body in the way it was designed.
Take a moment to find your sit bones now. If you’re sitting down (very likely), put one hand (or two) under your tush. As you sit on your hand, feel around for circular and slightly pointy bones on either side.
Sitting on your ischial tuberosity is a great way to tap into your natural poise and balance. You might be thinking that you’re already sitting on your sit bones. However, if you sit in front of a screen for most of the day, you’re likely sitting in one of two ways:
Leaning forward towards the screen with your chest and, in turn, arching your back (in an attempt to be straight) and pushing your sit bones backward.
Rounding your back (slouching) while your head is leaning towards the screen while tilting your pelvis — and subsequently your sit bones — forward into what looks like a C-shape sitting position.
According to Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine, tilting the head forward 60 degrees (like when leaning toward your screen) can add up to 60 pounds of pressure on the upper spine. His study found that spending just two to four hours a day tilting the head toward a device could add up to 700 to 1,400 hours a year of excess stress on the cervical spine.
Neither arching nor rounding the back are desirable ways to sit because they push the body out of alignment and put undue pressure on the spine, leading to back pain and even headaches. Instead, think of how a child sits on the floor with their head leading the body up and apply that “up” to what you’re doing in a chair.
Begin by rocking back and forth on your bottom to get a better sense of where your sit bones are. After finding your sit bones and sitting on them for a few minutes, you should sense some new muscular activity. It might seem unfamiliar. For example, you might notice your upper leg muscles are more engaged and feel like they’re working differently.
Inversely, if you start to sense any strain, you are likely overworking the same muscles that have been overused for years, such as your lower and upper back, neck, and shoulder muscles. If this happens, pause. Locate your sit bones again, and this time release your back by allowing it to round slightly rather than attempt to sit straight. Then get up and take a break.
Strengthen good habits
Among other things, spending the majority of your day sitting isn’t doing wonders for your core muscles. According to Osler, “our office chairs are predicated on the idea that we require support in order to sit. So we get the headrest, back rest, arm rest, foot rest, and then, in order to restore something that looks like normal posture, we get the coup de grâce — lumbar support. But we aren’t being supported, we’re being confined and restrained.”
Sitting without back support for even five minutes a day is a great way to remind the muscles that upheld you as a child to start operating again.
Think back to the small child sitting without any back support on the floor. The best way to get a sense of your sit bones is to sit on a hard surface. A chair with a thick cushion or heavy padding will not give you the necessary feedback to feel your sit bones. I prefer wooden stools or chairs or even a coffee table. You could also sit cross-legged on the ground.
At first, it may seem difficult to sit on a hard surface for a long period of time because you will be activating muscles which haven’t been engaged in a while. You might sense a need to rest, slouch, or even over-correct by arching. If you get tired, pause and take a break.
Sitting without back support for even five minutes a day is a great way to remind the muscles that upheld you as a child to start operating again. This is not to be confused with rigorous core strength exercises, like sit-ups or anything of the sort. The idea is to take the load off the muscles that are overworking every time you sit, like those of your lower back.
Relearning to rely on your body — rather than a chair — for support is a great way to enhance desirable habits. It not only reinforces the body’s intrinsic design for use, it also offsets the loss of flexibility and muscle strength, which contribute to a decline in balance.
As an added bonus, you’ll be less likely to collapse into a slouched position because your back won’t be as fatigued. However, like anything else, moderation is essential. Don’t push yourself to the point of pain. This is not meant to be an exercise, but rather an awakening of what the body innately knows.
Reflecting back on childhood can provide invaluable tools for balance. To begin with, children don’t interfere with life, they play with life. As the child grows into an adult, they learn to want more — to do more. Yet the incessant desire for more tends to hinder a child’s primary sense of freedom. That’s why finding balance can’t come from external sources but rather from peeling away the layers that have disrupted our natural mobility. As you learn to depend less on external objects and sources (chairs!) for stability, you reclaim the inherent wisdom bestowed upon you in your youth — and to once again support yourself.