Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Balancing act is important for golf

If your golf swing rivals Tiger Woods' but your game is over par, your balance could be the culprit.

"If you have poor balance, it will be tough to enjoy your golf game," says Dr. Raymond Chong, associate professor of physical therapy in the Medical College of Georgia School of Allied Health Sciences.

Good balance control underlies every movement the body makes, from standing, walking and sitting to skilled movements such as a golf swing. "It doesn't matter how good your swing is. Your feet must be set in position and you must shift your weight at the right time, or the ball won't get to where you want it to go," Dr. Chong says.

Many body systems contribute to effective balance control, says Dr. Chong, who has analyzed human balance control and motion for 11 years. Good balance control requires adequate muscle strength as well as flexibility and the ability to process and combine information from the eyes, inner ears and the body's sensation of its joints' movements, called proprioception.

The complexity of balance control also requires the brain's attention. "For a long time we thought activities such as walking and keeping our balance while standing or reaching were done subconsciously and there was no need to pay attention because the brain takes care of it. It turns out that's not true," says Dr. Chong. The brain has only so much ability to pay attention, and the balancing act consumes part of that "attentional resource."

The more multitasking you do, the more the brain has to partition those limited attentional resources. Consider the tasks associated with golf – focusing on the hole, balancing and shifting your weight, swinging the club and keeping score. For healthy individuals, balancing requires less attentional resource, allowing the brain to focus on more difficult tasks.

Balance control deteriorates with aging, a sedentary lifestyle or myriad medical conditions including Parkinson's disease and weakness or loss of flexibility in the hips, knees and ankle muscles. But adaptive abilities can overcome balance control deficiencies to some extent, Dr. Chong says.

To test your balance, he recommends filling a cup to the rim with water, holding it out in front of you and trying to walk without spilling the water. For added challenge, put the filled cup on a tray and hold it so that the tray blocks the view of your feet as you walk.

If these tests were difficult for you, Dr. Chong suggests the following exercises and tips to improve your balance:

Get moving. You're maintaining your balance control system as soon as you start to move. Walk with long steps or sideways crisscrossing one leg over the other as in a line dance. Walk on various terrains, such as a dirt trail or sandy beach.

Swing your arms while you walk.

Strengthen your ankles by going up and down on your toes. Do both feet at once, and when you're stronger, try one foot at a time. "Having adequate lower-leg strength is important for keeping your balance under control," Dr. Chong says.

Increase your base of support by spreading your feet farther apart. Consider increasing your base of support front to back by standing with one foot slightly forward. "It's not just your two feet helping you balance; it's also the space between them," he says.

Practice shifting your weight from one leg to the other. When you're used to this, exaggerate the weight shift by moving your hips or head.

Walk while holding an empty tray in front of you to block your vision and rely on your proprioceptive system. To increase difficulty, multitask by placing a small ball on the tray. Keep it from falling off while you walk.

If the tests or exercises are difficult for you after practice, a physical therapist can help diagnose and safely treat your balance control problem.

By Paula Hinely
Medical College of Georgia

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