Stay steady: 5 crucial elements of balance and how to test yours

Balance is an unsung physical hero, allowing us to stand, move, and navigate our surroundings without the threat of stumbling. Carolyn Tate explores why it's so crucial to maintain your balance as you get older - and how to test yours.

Postural balance is the guardian of mobility - and potentially our longevity - in the human body.

Our balance allows us stand or move without falling - and balance helps us recover if we trip.

Balance is controlled by signals to the brain about body movement and your position in relation to the environment. The brain integrates this information and sends signals back to the muscles on how to maintain balance.

You can test your balance using Dr Michael Mosley's popular balance challenge (read more below):

Can you pass the balance test?

Balance is basically a finely tuned system the co-ordinates our physical bodies with our vision and eyesight, proprioception (a fancy name for movement sensors in our muscles and body) and our inner ear's vestibular system.

When the brain can’t process signals from all of these systems, or if the messages are not functioning properly, that's when we may experience a loss of balance.

We may take it for granted while we have it, but our balance can make a big difference in our health and safety in 5 key ways:

1. Fall prevention

Falls are a significant concern as we get older, and they can have serious consequences. The World Health Organisation reports that falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide, and maintaining good balance is one of the most effective ways to prevent falls.

2. Mobility

A strong sense of balance is crucial if we want to maintain our mobility and independence. It allows us to perform daily activities with confidence, such as climbing stairs, getting in and out of a car, or even just walking around our home or neighbourhood.

3. Risk of injury

Having good balance can help reduce our risk of injury, especially bone fractures, which can be more serious as we age. A study published in Osteoporosis International found that impaired balance was linked with a higher risk of hip fractures. Better balance equals lower risk of such injuries.

4. Cognitive health

Perhaps more surprisingly, balance is also closely linked to our cognitive health. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that people with better balance tend to also have better cognitive function. Improving your balance may contribute to maintaining your mental sharpness as you age.

5. Mortality

As if that wasn’t enough, the most striking connection found so far is between balance and mortality. One US study found that adults over 40 with the best balance had a significantly lower risk of all-cause mortality (including from inexplicably linked causes like cancer) compared to those with good balance.

In a study published in the BMJ, 2,760 men and women, all 53 years old at the time of testing, underwent a battery of balance-related assessments including:

  • grip strength
  • the speed at which they could transition from sitting to standing
  • the duration they could stand on one leg with closed eyes.

Thirteen years after those first tests, the researchers discovered that each test independently predicted the likelihood of mortality of the participants over the intervening 13 years.

The single-legged standing test emerged as the most predictive, with people who could stand on one leg for less than 2 seconds more than 3 times as likely to have died comparied to those who could stand on one leg for 10 seconds or more.

How to improve balance at any age

Convinced it’s time to prioritise your balance? Here are some ways you can start improving your balance, bit by bit:

Balance exercises. Incorporate balance exercises into your daily routine. Simple exercises like standing on one leg, heel-to-toe walking, or yoga poses can help improve your balance over time. Michael Mosley suggests creating a daily habit of standing on one leg for 30 seconds on each side while brushing your teeth in the morning so it becomes part of your routine. These activities challenge your muscles and help your body adapt to maintaining equilibrium.

Don't go too hard, too fast - develop your balance over time. The video below offers a series of exercises

Strength training. Strength training, particularly focusing on your legs and core muscles, can greatly enhance your balance. As your muscles become stronger, they provide better support to your body's stability.

Tai Chi. Consider taking up Tai Chi, a martial art known for its graceful and slow movements. Tai Chi has been shown to improve balance, as well as relieving stress and alleviating depression.

Stay active. Engage in regular physical activity to maintain your overall fitness. Activities like walking, swimming, or dancing help keep your body agile and responsive, which can all contribute to better balance.

Review your medications. Some medications can affect balance and coordination. Talk to your doctor about any medications you're taking, and discuss potential alternatives or adjustments if you find that something is causing a balance issue.

Regular check-ups. Schedule regular check-ups with your doctor to keep tabs on your health and discuss any balance concerns as they arise. They can help with health concerns and recommend exercises or interventions specific to your needs.

Stay hydrated. Dehydration can affect your balance and increase your risk of falling. Ensure you're staying hydrated throughout the day with water, tea, or whatever you’re likely to remember to drink. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables can also help your hydration levels.

Heard of Dr Michael Mosley's balance challenge?

Dr Michael Mosley, known for his many health and nutrition books, and host of TV show Trust Me, I’m a Doctor has popularised The Balance Challenge.

Not all of us will be able to meet the balance challenge targets - but slow and steady exercise and movement can improve outcomes over time.

It's basically a test to see how long you can stand on one leg before you need to put your other foot down. How long you can hold this pose without assistance is a good indicator of several health factors.

Here are the targets to aim for, according to the TV doctor: 

·       Aged 50-59: 41 seconds with eyes open, 8 seconds eyes closed.

·       Aged 60-69: 32 seconds with eyes open, 4 seconds eyes closed.

·       Aged 70-79: 22 seconds with eyes open, 3 seconds eyes closed.

You can listen to the BBC podcast by Dr Michael Mosley, and judge for yourself whether it's right for you.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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