Balance is an important concept in health, right up there with moderation. (Which makes sense because moderation involves balance in and of itself.)
We eat a balanced diet. We practice work-life balance. Having physical balance helps us avoid falling injuries while keeping mental balance helps us prioritize.
Most of us understand this at an intuitive level. What we don’t understand is how powerful physical balance, and training our physical balance, can directly improve aspects of our mental health. Here are six ways physical balance improves mental health.
1. Physical Stability = Mental Confidence
If you’ve ever watched a professional athlete, martial artist, or elite soldier stand in place, you understand this concept. Knowing you’re stable and safe in the moment breeds personal confidence in a way few other things can. Feeling shaky or unstable has the exact opposite effect, making any kind of confidence feel as weak as a building set on a wobbly foundation.
The better your balance, the more comfortably and confidently you can stand. That confidence soon expands out into other aspects of life.
2. The Power of Practice
“Competence breeds confidence” is a saying for a reason. As you grow better at any skill, your mental health improves because of the assurance it builds. This is true of mastering a language, excelling at your job, getting skilled at a video game, and seeing marked improvements through balance-building activities.
Physical balance is not an inborn trait but a skill that improves with practice. Whether that practice comes from yoga, martial arts, gymnastics, tai chi, or another less structured form of repetition over time, the confidence that comes from improving your balance through your choice of activity has powerful positive impact on your mental well-being.
3. Your Limbic System at Work
Your limbic system is the parts of your nervous, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems responsible for emotions and how your body responds to them. When you laugh at a funny joke or cry at a wedding, that’s your limbic system in action. When you feel nervous before giving a presentation, those butterflies are your limbic system getting ready for a fight.
The limbic system helps get you out of physical peril, but it’s very bad at differentiating between different kinds of trouble and it can put immense stress on your body and mind if it’s too active. For example, most people have experienced a massive jolt of adrenaline in response to almost falling down and felt shaky for an hour or more afterward.
With good balance, your limbic system experiences less panic because you feel stable and safe. Less panic means less stress on your body and on your mental health.
4. Improved, More Powerful Focus
In a distracted world, the ability to truly focus can feel like a superpower. There are many ways to develop focus, including some items on this list, but it’s extremely difficult to focus when you feel unstable or worried about something people take for granted, like the ability to stand or move without falling down.
Improving your physical balance can also improve your focus. When you’re not distracted or worried about stabilizing yourself, you’ll discover that your focus will improve. This is one benefit of using a balance board while working; FluidStance balance boards help keep you focused while your body manages the subtle motion and works to keep your balance.
5. Routine and Healthy Habits
The importance of routine to mental health has been well-documented. It can reduce stress on its own and remove lifestyle stressors by helping you better manage various tasks and aspects of your lifestyle.
What does this have to do with improved balance? Improving your balance, as we mentioned earlier, requires practice. That’s repeated, regular practice overtime. Setting aside that time creates at least one routine in your life. In the short-term, that alone can have meaningful mental health benefits. Over time, it can form an anchor around which other healthy routines form.
6. Walking Meditation
One of the lesser-known, but easiest to practice, forms of meditation is simply walking and breathing. By focusing only on walking and breathing, you let other thoughts and stressors pass through your mind without taking root. This sort of mindful walking also improves balance, both by building the muscles that contribute to balance and by leading you to think more deeply about the way you walk and stand.
The mental health benefits of meditation include:
- Gaining perspective on problems
- Increased self-awareness
- Reduced negative emotions
- Increased creativity
- Increased patience
- Improved sleep
Meditation has been shown to help manage the symptoms and even reduce the risk for conditions including asthma, cancer, chronic pain, depression, and high blood pressure. All of these physical conditions are stressors that can erode mental health.
While physical balance improves mental health, there is one important way physical balance — or at least training for physical balance — can actually harm your mental health. That’s when you obsess over perfection or compare yourself to an Olympic athlete. It can even happen when you compare your progress to a training partner who happens to be ahead of you. This sort of “head game” can ruin your enjoyment of your practice, further slowing your progress.
Instead, remember to compare yourself only to yourself. It doesn’t matter how good you are in the grand scheme of things, just that you’re a little better next week than you are this week, and a little better than that in a few weeks. Keep your focus on what you’re getting from your practice.