The Upside of Instability

Rickety bridge - Alps High Route - Mt Blanc to Matterhorn

We are accustomed to thinking of instability as being a bad thing. I even wrote my senior thesis in college on the effect of economic, social and political stability on minority groups. As my research uncovered, stability is not always what it is cracked up to be.

This is especially true in the world of fitness and resistance training. It is even more so when we are dealing with older adults. A foundational principle in weight training is the idea of progression; adding more reps, sets, weight, incline or speed over time to increase or maintain muscle mass, or to enhance stamina.

We recognize this kind of principle in many areas of our lives; at our jobs, we rarely start out as CEO, but rather work out way up from the mailroom, etc. The more difficult the task, the greater our skills are developed.

Instability training is training that takes place on a surface that is not stable. Progression would typically advance from a stable surface to a less stable surface to an even less stable surface. For instance, at first a person might be instructed to do bicep curls on the floor–a stable surface. Next, the person might move to an instability pad (more solid than a pillow, but less stable than styrofoam); from there it might advance to a Bosu ball (ball up) and then to a Bosu ball (ball down). Each step involves less stability, forcing the legs and core to compensate in order to maintain proper balance and form.

A study published earlier in 2020 in Scientific Reports, shares interesting conclusions about instability training. Here is the link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59105-0.

We have known about the benefits for balance–especially important as we age–but it now appears that there are cognitive benefits as well. Research conducted at University of Kassel in Germany shows that “mental fitness” improved for older adults when instability/balance training was included along with regular resistance training. That mental fitness meant “improved working memory, processing speed, and response inhibition.” (Response inhibition is the ability to control a response in order to reach a goal).

More and more, we are discovering the connection between physical activity and cognition. Those of us working with older adults can now add another benefit to the work that we do by including instability training if we do not do so already. And for those who already do, here is another reason why.

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