Slacklining – are there benefits off the line?


If you believe everything you read about slacklining, you’d think by participating in this sport you become less prone to injury, develop a wickedly ripped core, get smarter and be able manage ADHD-like disorders completely drug-free. The internet has no shortage of anecdotes supporting each one of these claims. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? The question is, do these claims really stack up? Is there any scientific evidence to support such statements? This article hopes to give an overview of some of the research that has been done, both slackline-specific and related to more general balance training benefits.

Scientific studies on Slacklining

Due to the relative youth of the sport, very few scientific studies have been done to investigate its possible benefits. This said, there are a few papers out there that do look at this topic.

In 2010, the International Journal of Sports Medicine published a paper (Granacher et. al, 2010)  investigating the effect of slackline training for balance and strength promotion. While the study found no direct evidence that slacklining made strength training more effective, it did find that slacklining increased the rate of development of a muscular contraction. In other words, the given strength tasks were able to be performed faster by participants involved in slackline training.

A study published in 2011 (Hüfner et. al, 2011) found that slacklining led to an increase in the structural and functional plasticity of the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for navigation and memory. While nobody pretends to understand the exact workings of the human brain, this study is backed up by numerous others that show that exercise and complex movement is good for the brain and helps with learning.

The final study that we will discuss here was conducted in Switzerland (Keller, 2011) and found that participants in slackline training improved communication between sensors and the spinal cord, resulting in better postural control. This may come as a surprise to some, who may have seen many a slackliner with a hunched back and terrible posture, but keep in mind that most slackliners today were originally (and probably still consider themselves primarily) climbers, a group notorious for over-development of certain muscles and ignorance of others, resulting in terrible posture.

Scientific studies on general balance training

While studies on the potential benefits of slacklining are somewhat limited, there is a vast number of experiments documented in scientific literature regarding the benefits of balance training in general. This article is not intended to be a rigorous review of all such studies, but instead will highlight some of the main findings.

There are many, many studies out there detailing the benefits of balance training for the elderly by reducing the risk of falling. The statistics are staggering – for instance, it is reported that 24% of people over the age of 50 will die within 12 months of a hip fracture. Combine this with the fact that women have a 15% chance of breaking a limb in their lifetime, and one can easily see the benefits of better balance for the elderly. That said, presumably readers of this site will be active young-to-middle-aged people rather than elders in assisted living quarters, and I wouldn’t suppose that slacklining would be a suitable activity for people in such a position, so I shan’t focus on this area of research any further.

A detailed explanation of how the body maintains balance is beyond the scope of this article (the interested reader is directed here), though a simple explanation is that it is made up of the combined input of three senses: sight, proprioception and the vestibular system. Hopefully we all know about sight, but proprioception and the vestibular system are less well understood by the general public. Generally speaking, proprioception is our sense of where different parts of the body are in space. If you can touch your fingers above your head without looking, then you have proprioception to thank. On the other hand, the vestibular system is made up of organs in the inner ear and provides information on movement, spatial orientation and rotation.

A paper (Rozzi et. al 1999) published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy investigated joint proprioception results for participants who had experienced multiple ankle inversions. Poor ankle proprioception increases the likelihood of recurring injuries such as these, and the study showed that a 4-week balance training program was an effective means of improving joint proprioception.

In 2005, a joint Canadian-Australian team found that balance and jump training increased vertical jump height of participants by 9%, and resulted in a 33% increase in muscle activity patterns upon landing from jumps amongst their test group of recreationally active females (Kean et. al, 2005). While the benefits of being able to jump higher are obvious for certain other sports, the increased muscle activity requires further explanation. During landings, lower-extremity joints (knees, ankles and the like) absorb the potentially large forces involved. The muscles around the joints work to ensure those forces are handled correctly to avoid injury. Broadly speaking, the more work those muscles are able to do, the less likely injury to the joints is to occur. In other words, balance and jump training may result in a decrease in the likelihood of injury.

This result was backed up by a 2007 review of balance training, concluding that,

Multifaceted intervention studies that have included balance training along with jumping, landing and agility exercises have resulted in a significant decrease in ankle or knee injuries in team handball, volleyball and recreational athletes… As a single intervention, balance training has been shown to significantly reduce the recurrence of ankle ligament injuries in soccer, volleyball and recreational athletes.” – C. Hrysomallis, 2007.

Furthermore, a 2010 study (Sekendiz et. al 2010)  found that using a gym ball in training improved strength, endurance flexibility and balance in sedentary women.

A note on slacklining and common disorders

There is a vast amount of anecdotal evidence (Slackline Australia, LNF Events and Gear…) implying or explicitly stating that Slacklining and other balance activities can be beneficial in the treatment of certain disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), insomnia and dyslexia, and no article on slacklining benefits would be complete without mentioning this possible link.

To begin with, let’s have a look at what makes up a particular disorder – in this case, ADHD. A fantastic article on the topic can be viewed here. To briefly summarize, visual and vestibular sensory processing disorders are common amongst this population, particularly children. This is to say, the sensors work perfectly well – what fails is the person’s ability to interpret what those sensors are saying. Indeed, it is believed that the vestibular system is not fully developed for the most part until 15 years of age, indicating the prevalence of such disorders amongst children.

If a class demonstration used a visual aid, such as a whiteboard, and a child cannot focus visually on that aid, it is unlikely he or she will be able to focus on the content of the lesson. In this way, slacklining may be used as a tool to train better concentration, with very real and obvious results. If one attempts to slackline and does not focus one’s vision on a single point, they will fall off. Case – failing to focus vision – followed by effect – falling off – is clearly evident in such a situation.

This approach is far from new in the treatment of such disorders. The Dore program is a program available in 6 countries throughout the world for the treatment of disorders such as ADHD, and is based on the belief that disorders such disorders are the cause of an ineffective or underdeveloped cerebellum (the part of the brain partly responsible for sensory processing). Similarly, The Learning Breakthrough Program involves engaging participants in various balance-based activities. To date, I am unaware of any large-scale treatment plans involving slacklining, though due to the relative youth of the sport and lack of publicity until recently, this is unsurprising.

I should clearly point out that I am not advocating for the use of slacklining as a sole treatment for disorders such as the above. I cannot find any scientific literature that supports the claim that it will be beneficial at all. That said, an argument can be made that slacklining, in conjunction with other forms of treatment, may be beneficial for those living with these disorders. I will claim that slacklining is exceedingly fun though, so if it is incorporated into such a treatment plan, it shouldn’t suffer from the lack of enthusiasm often greeted by other behavioural-based treatments.

Conclusions

As has been shown, extensive research has been done showing balance training can be used for injury rehabilitation, can significantly reduce the risk of injury to lower joints and ligaments, reduces the chance of falls in elderly patients and can increase strength, endurance and flexibility. More specifically, slacklining has been shown to increase brain activity in regions related to memory and navigation, improve reaction time and improve posture. While this review could not find of slacklining being used beneficially as a management tool for ADHD-like disorders, it is not too much of a leap to conclude that management of a disorder that is the result of a poor visual/vestibular processing system may benefit from an activity that trains these systems. We have also seen that other treatment programs utilize balance-based activities to manage such disorders.

I’ll leave you with the fitting words of Mike ‘Alpha’ Payton, prolific Gibbon slackliner and 2011 World Champion. When asked what was benefited by slacklining, he responded,
Everything.  Every single thing you ever do in your life, slacklining will help.  Slacklining gives you better meditation, better balance, focus, strength, everything.  Everything you need to live, it gives you.” – Mike “Alpha” Payton.

References

U. Granacher, et. al, Slackline training for balance and strength promotion, International Journal of Sports Medicine, August 2010
Abstract available here.

C. Hrysomallic, Relationship between balance ability, training and sports injury risk, Sports Medicine, 2007;37(6):547-56.
Abstract available here.

K. Hüfner et. al, Structural and functional plasticity of the hippocampal formation in professional dancers and slackliners, Hippocampus, 2011 Aug;21(8):855-65
Abstract available here.

M. Keller et. al, Improved postural control after slackline training is accompanied by reduced H-reflexes, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, March 2011
Abstract available here.

References: O. Kean et. al, Fixed foot balance training increases rectus femoris activation during landing and jump heigh in recreationally active women,  Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 5, 138-148
PDF available here.

S. L. Rozzi et. al, Balance training for persons with functionally unstable ankles Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy, 1999, 29(8):478-86
Abstract available here.

B.  Sekendiz et. al, Effects of Swiss-Ball Core Strength Training on Strength, Endurance, Flexibility, and Balance in Sedentary Women, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010, 24(11):3032-3040
Abstract available here.

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