It is often said that good health is all about balance. This can be taken quite literally as researchers have long known that poor balance is linked to falls with ageing, with the ability to balance reducing from the mid-50s. Falls are the leading cause of hospitalised injuries and injury related deaths among Australians aged 65 years and over, with about half of all falls occurring at home.
Balance is a complex process. The brain processes information from the receptors in muscles, joints and tendons combined with visual information from the eyes and spatial information from the inner ear. It then sends signals to muscles to maintain balance. These muscles in turn require sufficient strength to maintain balance and stability. Disruption in any one these pathways effects balance. Trying to balance with your eyes closed for example is much harder as the brain has more work to do to make up for this missing information. A range of health conditions can also interfere with various stages of this process.
Testing your Balance
So how do you know if you have a balance problem? A recent research report looking at balance as an indicator of health developed a simple test which can be used to screen people’s ability to balance. The test involves standing on one leg with bare feet, the other leg is bent so the foot rests behind the standing leg’s calf while the arms are relaxed by the side of the body. In the study either leg could be used, and participants were given three attempts to hold this position. The goal is to hold this original position for 10 seconds without needing support.
Better Balance Associated with Better Health
The researchers followed the participants (aged 51-75 years at the time of test) for 10 years. They found that those who passed the 10 second one leg standing test had better overall health and lived longer than those who could not. Before you kick off your shoes and try this test make sure someone is with you for support in case you lose your balance!
Balance Improves with Exercise
Balance can be improved with exercises. There are specific balance exercises, though exercises which also target strength, flexibility and endurance provide a more holistic approach to age related exercise needs. Yoga, Tai chi, Pilates, dance, weights, walking, walking up stairs and hiking are all helpful. The UK NHS service has a useful self-help site https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/strength-and-flexibility-exercises/balance-exercises/ , as does the US based National Institutes of Health https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/four-types-exercise-can-improve-your-health-and-physical-ability. Face to face classes and one on one help is available from exercise trainers and some health professionals. The benefits of good balance go beyond reducing the incidence of falls. It would appear that the exercise habits needed to maintain good balance have a positive effect on overall health as well as found by the balance study outlined above. As the decline in balance starts in the mid 50’s, it may be time to try the test and perhaps make some changes in your exercise routine now.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Falls in older Australians 2019–20: hospitalisations and deaths among people aged 65 and over. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/injury/falls-in-older-australians-2019-20-hospitalisation/contents/summary
National Institute on Ageing. Four Types of Exercise Can Improve Your Health and Physical Ability https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/four-types-exercise-can-improve-your-health-and-physical-ability
NHS. Balance Exercises https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/strength-and-flexibility-exercises/balance-exercises/
Successful 10-second one-legged stance performance predicts survival in middle-aged and older individuals. Araujo CG, et al. Br J Sports Med 2022;0:1–7. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-105360 http://press.psprings.co.uk/bjsm/june/bjsm105360.pdf