Balancing Act! Longevity and ability to balance linked.
How long can you balance whilst standing on one leg?
You may ask, does it matter? Well it turns out that your ability to balance unsupported on one leg for 10 seconds or more can be an indicator of good overall health. Good balance requires the coordination of several parts of the body: the central nervous system, inner ear, eyes, muscles, bones, and joints. Problems with any one of these can affect balance.
In June this year the British Journal of Sports Medicine published the results of a 12 year study looking at the relationship between people’s ability to balance on one one leg and subsequent mortality rates: “Successful 10-second one-legged stance performance predicts survival in middle-aged and older individuals” Dr Claudio Gil Araaujo et al.
It was a relatively large study with 1702 men and women, aged between 51 and 75, assessed between 2008 and 2020. In a flamingo-like way, participants rested the front of their free foot on the back of the calf of their standing leg, with arms by their sides and whilst staring ahead with a fixed gaze, they were asked to balance for 10 seconds. The study discovered that those who couldn’t do it within 3 attempts, on either foot, had a higher rate of dying within the next 7-10 years. Even when the results were adjusted for factors such as age, weight, sex and ill health, they still showed that people who couldn’t pass the balance test had nearly double the death rate, with an 84 per cent higher risk of dying, from any cause, during the study period.
In a discussion article about the study in the UK Times Newspaper, Professor Jamie McPhee, Head of sport and exercise sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University (in the UK), and a researcher into the effects of balance on wellbeing, says that a lack of balance is rarely a cause of ill health, but a strong marker for it. After the age of 50 balance quickly diminishes and whilst we can’t completely avoid it we can delay the rate of deterioration. Mc Phee said “Just a few seconds of balance work everyday could bring dividends for your health”. McPhee’s own research work shows that it is our brain's control of movement that deteriorates, so even the most diligent gym goers still need to work specifically on including some balance training in their workout. The mind knowing where the body is in space without seeing it is key to being able to balancing.
Balance work links closely into Pilates and Yoga. Both disciplines focus on controlled movements, training our minds to be aware of the position of our bodies in space, as we carefully execute precise exercises in Pilates or hold specific poses in yoga. This is part of the mind-body element of both disciplines which makes them both very valuable to help improve one’s proprioception skills especially when balancing. In almost all my classes I include some specific balance work to offer the opportunity for clients to train this skill. However, you do not need to take a class to gain benefits, a few seconds every day is beneficial, so try these couple of suggestions:
Stand on one leg whilst cleaning your teeth.
Walk along an imaginary tightrope, use the edge of a floor rug as a guide whilst waiting for a kettle to boil. Walk heel to toe to increase the challenge!
Try some dynamic balancing exercises using a step or a platform to alter the way you need to shift your body mass as you step to balance. This is excellent training for walking on the uneven pavement surfaces found so often here in Bangkok! Good balance is key to not falling over which is something we all want to avoid, especially the older we get.
Once you have mastered standing on each leg for 20 seconds increase the challenge again by trying it with your eyes closed!
Attaching the balance challenge to something you already do makes it far more likely that you will regularly remember to challenge yourself. So start to incorporate some balancing into your daily routine and reap the benefits of a potentially longer life!