- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2003

Top athletes and ordinary exercisers are training in jumping and bouncing as a way to avoid falling down and getting hurt.
Health clubs and gyms open to professional and amateur athletes use balance training to condition muscles and improve reflexes that keep users on their feet.
Although researchers think the training has benefits, they temper their enthusiasm with a reminder that balance training has limitations.
"There are all kinds of data to demonstrate that balance can be improved. It's the technique in which they go about improving that is not well-understood," said researcher Walt Thompson, professor of exercise science at Georgia State University.
Balance training can be as simple as standing on one foot or as complex and competitive as gymnastics, but the current trend is core conditioning.
Techniques called core conditioning focus on strengthening muscles of the trunk and legs, especially ones that control the spine. Along with this, the training lets participants practice using feedback from the eyes, ears, nerves and muscles that control balance.
For athletes, particularly those in sports like skiing, balance is vital. The U.S. Olympic ski team has a varied program that includes gymnastics, yoga and jumping. The skiers also stand and jump on devices found in health clubs, such as the Bosu Balance Trainer, an inflated plastic bubble mounted on a flat base 25 inches in diameter.
To reach the Olympic level, an athlete must have excellent balance but still may have weaknesses that can be strengthened.
Demonstrating that training works is harder than setting up the regimens, said Andy Walsh, the ski team's sports-science director. "Some of the athletes say they have improved," he said, but proof would require continued balance tests on expensive equipment that the ski team does not have.
For the rest of the world, the benefits of training in balance probably would be greater, Mr. Walsh said.
Balance, an adjustment from one leg to the other, is related directly to physical condition, so working out should reduce falling down, Mr. Thompson said. Equipment that gets the legs and trunk used to balance should help.
Mr. Thompson says he has not seen scientific proof that training equipment also will speed nerve-muscle reactions involved in balance, but "it makes sense intuitively," especially for people who are out of shape.
More Americans are out of shape than are in shape, so core conditioning and the equipment on which to do it are potential exercise growth areas.
"Health club marketing people are brilliant," Mr. Thompson said. "Sometimes the longevity of new programs doesn't work out, but I'm happy to see this one."
Clubs typically offer a range of programs such as yoga, Pilates and step-training classes on platforms. One example is the Reebok Core Board, a low, elliptical wobbly plastic form 22 inches across. The board is sold for home as well as club use. Another is the Bosu half-dome, which so far is only in clubs.

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