What A Baby And Usain Bolt Have In Common

If you have ever watched a baby learning to walk, you can see them struggle to learn how to coordinate their balance for hands and knees crawling to walking on two feet. They typically pull themselves up by grabbing on to furniture or people to steady themselves. The name “toddler” implies toddling around as they continue to get a feel for walking.


Contrast the image of a baby learning to walk with an Olympic runner like Usain Bolt from Jamaica. This elite athlete has advanced his balance to a level where he propelled himself forward at speed so fast in 2009 that he broke the 100 meter dash record in 9.58 seconds. 


The image of the baby learning to walk and Usain Bolt crossing the finish line may seem like extreme opposites but they have one thing in common: BALANCE.


Both the baby and the sprinter must develop balance to propel themselves forward. The baby is at the beginning stages of developing balance when they are first learning how to pull to stand and balance on two feet. The sprinter is mastering his balance skills when he pushes off one foot to land on the opposite foot and then immediately pushes off again. Without balance, both the baby and the sprinter would fall to the ground.


I once treated an elite marathon runner. She had multiple chronic injuries: stress fractures in both lower legs, Achilles’ tendinitis on one side, and hip bursitis on the same side. Frankly, she was a mess. I was teaching her a kneeling hip flexor stretch and after I demonstrated the correct technique, she knelt on the floor next to a treatment table. She fell over!


I’m serious. This elite marathon had won marathons and she could not kneel on the ground without falling over. She could only perform the stretch if she held onto the table. She lacked balance and core stability. She couldn’t stand on one leg to maintain her balance either because she had hip weakness and ankle instability.


Like I said, she was a mess. She had raw talent to run fast and she thought she was strong and flexible. The problem was she had a lot of weak areas that caused increased stress to other areas; hence, the reason she had multiple injuries and was confined to water running in the pool for 8 weeks.


In my 22+ years as a physical therapist, one of the primary causes of injuries is lack of balance. One of the biggest predictors of falling in the aging population is lack of balance. On the flip side, one of the biggest predictors of athletic success is amazing balance. 


In the athletic and adult population, a person should be able to stand on 1 leg for 30 seconds with their eyes closed WITHOUT losing their balance. Please do not try this at home unless you can master standing on one leg for 30 seconds with your eyes open.


A person who can stand up/sit down 5 times within 14 seconds is less likely to fall in their home because they have good balance to transition from sitting to standing.


How can you determine if you have good balance?

Listed below are a few balance tests that I do in my physical therapy practice. If a person is struggling with their balance, the tests can become the exercise. Please do not try these if you live alone or if you are home by yourself. Please do not try these if you must use an assistive device when you walk. Safety is always first, so if you are hesitant to try these activities then it is best for you to perform these tests with a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy like myself who can help keep you safe during the testing process.

  • Stand on 1 leg for 30 seconds with eyes open
  • Stand on 1 leg for 30 seconds with eyes closed (it’s helpful to stand in a doorway so if you start to lose your balance then you can grab the doorframe with your hands
  • Five Times Sit To Stand - Start in a seated position and sit/stand 5 times in less than 14 seconds 
  • Timed Up And Go - Start in a seated position, stand up, walk 10 feet then turn around, and sit back down in less than 10 seconds 
  • Tandem Stance - Stand with one foot in front of the other for 30 seconds; switch the order of your feet
  • Stepping Over Cups - Place 4-6 plastic cups in a line and step over each cup

You can view a few of these tests by watching a video 


Balance is key to movement, regardless of age and activity level. If you have any questions or concerns about balance in yourself or in a loved one, please do not hesitate to reach out by contacting me. 

To Your Best Health,

Dr. Jeanette



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