One of the questions I get asked all the time is “How do I improve my balance?” And before I started studying the the brain and its effects on balance, I was always surprised by how quickly my clients improved their equilibrium through the use of the Pilates reformer. You wouldn’t think an eight foot long machine that slides in and out could have such a dramatic effect on balance. However, as the Pilates method has demonstrated since Joseph Pilates first opened his studio in 1926, this form of exercise and training has changed the lives and balance of millions of people worldwide. Now, by examining the vestibular system we can see exactly why it works so well! First, let’s define a couple of things:
Your vestibular system is often known as your inner ear, and it’s responsibility is to tell your brain where you are in relationship to gravity. As you can imagine, it’s pretty important to know where up and down are! When this system gets confused or experiences dysfunction, it will send an alarm signal which can manifest itself as dizziness, nausea, and vertigo. Today we will focus on a small part of the Vestibular System known as the Otolith Organs.
There are two otolith organs, and they are known as the saccule and utricle. In the simplest terms, the structure of each organ is similar to a big old fish bowl. In the fish bowl there are crystal-like “rocks” of calcium carbonate called otoliths or otoconia, sitting on top of a jello-like fluid substance with small hair cells underneath. When the fluid moves, it pushes these mechanoreceptor hair cells, and fires a nerve signal telling the brain about the acceleration of movement happening. Bouncing, or movement up and down like jumping jacks stimulates the saccule. When you walk forward, walk backward, or move side to side you are activating the utricle.
Enter the Pilates Reformer! Though it looks intimidating, the reformer is an intelligently designed machine that consist of springs, pulleys, a platform and a carriage that moves back and forth in a linear motion. Sound familiar? Through this sophisticated system of movement we can activate the otolith organs, specifically the utricle, while doing arm work, leg work, abdominal work, and full body integration exercises. The rocking and sliding nature of the carriage not only stimulates one of our most important systems, but also creates novelty for the otolith organs. And we know that our brain craves novelty!
So how is your balance today? Are you looking for ways to create better balance? How are you challenging and training your vestibular system? Maybe it’s time to add a bit more novelty into your workouts. Come on in, and try it out!