Len Kaplan started having difficulty walking in a straight line at the age of 50. Scoliosis combined with compressed discs in his back was causing his balance to deteriorate. “Physiotherapy, regular exercise, just wasn’t doing the job. I needed something different,” said the now 80-year-old.
Around this time, he and his wife, Ginny, went on a cruise with twice-daily tai chi lessons. Ginny (77) said they loved tai chi – which involves slow, controlled movements and deep breathing – so much that they found a class nearby when they got home. The habit remained.
The two have been taking tai chi and balance classes regularly for over 15 years. Kaplan is able to walk in a straight line with ease and his balance has improved. Last September, during a visit to Greece, they decided to climb the nearly 100 steps to the top of the Acropolis. They climbed on slippery, uneven steps with no handrails. They reached the top and were rewarded with ancient ruins and stunning views of Athens below. “At my age, I know people who would say, ‘oh no, I’m going to stand in the back of the parking lot and take pictures, thank you,'” Ginny said, “but how fun is that?”
Balance training is an important, yet often overlooked skill that affects both our longevity and quality of life, starting around age 40. A study in June by a Brazilian team found that 20% of 1,700 elderly people tested could not balance on one leg for 10 seconds or more. And this inability to balance was associated with a double risk of death from any cause within 10 years.
If you’ve tried the single-leg test (with a wall or chair nearby for safety) and didn’t pass, don’t panic. It’s never too late to start working on balance, even if you can pass the 10-second test, especially if you’re over 50. This doesn’t necessarily mean handstands and acrobatics. In fact, you can start at home without any equipment.
What the 10 Second Test Can (and Can’t) Tell Us
Falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, but doctors don’t have an easy way to check balance like they do blood pressure or pulse. In this test, which can be completed in less than a minute, the patient gets three attempts to do a 10-second single-legged stand on either leg.
“The idea here was just to come up with a very simple test that could be an indication of a person’s ability to balance,” said Palo Alto researcher Stanford University professor Dr. Jonathan Myers. VA Health Care System and author. of the balance sheet study. He said the inability to perform this task was a powerful predictor of mortality. In the study, one in five people couldn’t handle it.
“As you age, strength and balance tend to decline and that can lead to frailty. Frailty is a really big thing now that the population is aging,” Myers said.
Balance problems can be caused by a variety of factors, many of which are age-related, said Dr. Lewis Lipsitz, professor of medicine at Harvard University.
When your vision is affected by cataracts or nerve signals from your feet to your brain slow down, it makes it harder to balance. While it’s impossible to prevent all types of age-related decline, you can counteract the effect on your balance through specialized training and strength development.
“There’s a downward spiral of people not going out, not walking, not exercising, not doing balance training, and they’re getting weaker and weaker. And the weakness muscle is another significant risk factor for falls,” he said.
Researchers have previously linked balance and strength to mortality, finding that the ability to rise from the ground to stand, balance on one leg for 30 seconds with one eye closed, and even walk at a steady pace sustained are all related to longevity.
Balance improvement activities
Balance training goes hand in hand with strength training. The stronger the muscles in your legs, glutes, feet and core, the better your balance. You can improve your balance by taking tai chi or yoga classes, but weight training, dance, rock climbing, or aerobics classes are also great ways to work on your balance. “Really, any type of exercise seems to help balance and fall risk,” said Dr. Avril Mansfield, a senior scientist at the KITE-Toronto Rehabilitation Institute who specializes in movement science.
But some forms of exercise are better than others. If your only movement is walking on a smooth surface, with no lateral movement, it won’t significantly improve your balance, said Dr. Rachael Seidler, a professor in the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology at the University of Florida.
If you really want to improve your balance, Seidler said, you’ll get the most out of it by focusing on several specific exercises.
Train your balance at home
So how do you start? Luckily, most balance workouts don’t require any special equipment, and you can start at home. As with any new exercise program, be sure to talk to your doctor first and have a chair nearby to hold on to if you feel unsteady.
Try these five balance exercises two to three times a week, gradually increasing the difficulty as you feel comfortable and begin to improve your strength.
1) One-legged stance
Stand behind a chair with both hands. Lift one leg off the floor, bend the raised knee toward your chest, and stand on one leg for five seconds. Repeat five times, then do the same with your other leg. Too easy? Hold on to the chair with one hand, release both hands, or try to close your eyes.
2) Bodyweight Squats
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Bend your knees and lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your weight in your heels. Extend your arms out in front of you if you need help with balance, or squat lower if it’s too easy. Repeat 10 times. Hold a dumbbell to add to the difficulty.
3) Bird dog
Start on your hands and knees with your back flat. Raise one right leg behind you and raise the opposite right arm in front of you, so that you are balancing on one knee and one hand. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
4) Lateral leg raises
Stand behind a chair with both hands. Raise one leg out to the side, trying to keep your body as still as possible. Repeat with the other leg, five times on each side. Increase the intensity by holding the leg longer or letting go of the chair.
5) Tandem Stance
Stand up straight and place one foot directly in front of the other, your heel touching your toe. Keep equal weight on both feet, knees slightly bent. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch feet, repeating three times. Close your eyes to make the task more difficult. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times