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Health

4 balance challenges to help you live longer

June 5th 2021 / Melanie Macleod / 0 comment

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How long you can balance for is an indicator of how long you'll live, says Dr Michael Mosley. We tried four challenges to improve our balance – and hopefully our lifespan!

Unless you’re a tightrope walker, chances are how well you can balance is something that rarely crosses your mind. Balance is something we all take for granted but if we don’t use it, we can lose it, cautions Dr Michael Mosley in his health podcast Just One Thing. “Balance enables us to move confidently, but your sense of balance deteriorates as you enter your 40s and 50s and can make you less physically confident,” Dr Mosley says.

Why is balance important?

Better balance means better posture and fewer injuries from falling, which according to the World Health Organisation is the second most common cause of accidental death worldwide.

“If people have poorer balance they tend not to live as long,” professor Dawn Skelton of Glasgow Caledonian University told Dr Michael Mosley. “It could be because they're falling, fracturing and dying earlier but it's probably more to do with the brain.”

If your brain is not doing well with regards to balance, it's probably not doing well for your organs or your cardiovascular system, so it's an overall marker of decline, says professor Skelton.

Improving your balance improves core strength, posture and coordination, meaning you're more likely to walk upright which will make you look younger, says Dr Mosley. Plus, research shows balance is a predictor of life expectancy. “One study showed a clear relationship between how long people in the 50s could stand on one leg with their eyes closed and whether they'd be alive 13 years later,” he continues.

How do we balance?

To stay upright our brain uses messages from the balance organs in our inner ear, along with messages from our eyes, muscles and joints, explains Dr Mosley. “Together they tell your brain where your body is in space which allows you to do multiple things at once, such as running and dribbling a basketball. As we get older and less active our muscles get weaker and our brains aren't as good as allowing us to balance,” he says.

Why are we getting worse at balancing?

As well as our ability to balance naturally declining from around 40, our sedentary lifestyles are also responsible for our loss of balance. “With each generation we're a bit less active,” professor Dawn Skelton told Dr Mosley. “Balance requires you to be on your feet, but now we spend more time sitting on screens and balance is getting worse with each generation.

Can you improve your sense of balance?

The good news is, it’s never too late to improve your balance, and it can improve quite quickly, says Dr Mosley, "you just have to challenge it.”

“It's never too late to improve your balance,” says Professor Dawn. “I’ve worked with 95-year-olds who couldn't get their toe off the floor to do a one-legged stand and three or four months later they can stand on one leg for up to 60 seconds.”

“If you can improve your balance it can make a big difference to stop you falling and having hip fractures,” she continues. “We also know that activities that improve balance include dual tasking, which make the brain work harder, so there's some suggestion that it helps cognition and slows the chance of dementia.”

4 balance challenges to try today

Anything that taxes your whole balance system is a good way to improve your balance, says Dr Mosley. “If you're over 40 you'll find standing on one leg can be challenging, doing it with eyes closed is even harder. If you can do over ten seconds you're doing well.”

Beginner: Standing on one leg with eyes closed

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Not as easy as it sounds, Dr Mosley suggests setting a timer for 30 seconds and standing on one leg, before switching to the other for the next 30 seconds. If you find it easy, try doing it with your eyes closed - the concentration means you’ll definitely feel your core working. To make it even harder, personal trainer Christina Howells has another variation. "Stand on one leg and tap to the front, side and back with your opposite foot with your eyes closed. I do that with clients a lot and harder than it sounds.

"Doing this strengthens the legs and core," Christina continues. "As we age stability is so important along with with strength to prevent falls."

GTG's digital writer Melanie gave it a go. "I'm 31 so felt quite confident in my balancing skills and rightfully so with my eyes open, though it was definitely more difficult when it comes to closing my eyes. I could feel my core working and felt much more wobbly when my eyes were shut," she says. "In his podcast Michael said he does this challenge while brushing his teeth, so I'll try that next time."

In his TV show Lose a Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley which aired earlier this year, Dr Mosley said that if you're 50 or above and can stand on one leg for eight seconds you're doing well. In your 40s you should be able to clock up 13 seconds. At 60-plus four seconds is good going.

Intermediate: Tandem walk

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A tandem walk involves putting one tip of your heel against the toe of the other (like walking along a tight rope) to reduces your base of support.

"Exercises like the tandem walk may sound easy, but actually in practice they can really highlight any imbalances in the body," says Hollie Grant, Pilates instructor and founder of online and in studio classes Pilates PT. "Reducing your base of support, and therefore balance, can be really challenging and is a great way of improving your balance. Keep your eyes fixed ahead on something that isn’t moving (such as a picture on the wall) and take your time. Once you have mastered the move in a slow-motion, build up your speed to challenge yourself further. If struggling, try holding your arms out high to the sides for balance – but it’s much harder with the arms staying by your side."

Advanced: Stand on one leg and push objects

Swedish athlete and health coach Malin Malle, who uploads workouts for her 357,000 Instagram followers, makes the challenge of standing on one leg that bit trickier by going onto tiptoes, placing objects around her and pushing them away one by one with her foot. "Place four objects around you that can slide on the floor, stand on your toes, push away the objects one by one as far as you can while always staying on your toes," she says.

When a pro-athlete is wobbling about, you know it's a tricky one!

Expert: Tree pose on the bed

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Victoria Woodhall, yoga teacher and GTG’s editorial director, makes things trickier balance wise by standing on the bed.

“Balancing on one leg isn’t all about strength or flexibility, 60 per cent is concentration, focusing your eyes on one spot (if you don’t believe me, try balancing with your eyes closed),” she says.

“Do tree pose while you are waiting for the kettle to boil. Pick something in front of you to look at and don’t move your eyes as you shift the weight on to one leg. The minute your gaze wanders, your mind wanders and you start to wobble - not that that’s a bad thing it’s great for strengthening your ankle to help prevent future falls, but if the aim is to balance for longer, your point of view (drsti in yoga) will keep you there.”

“There are many variations of tree pose to try and you can work your way to ever more fancy moves. Start low with the heel on the inner shin, then once you’ve mastered that, move the heel up to the inner thigh (option to bend to one side for swaying tree) then take the big toe with your first two fingers and straighten your leg out in front or to the side (as above). Try it on the bed or sand for extra jeopardy, or looking up at the ceiling. Whenever need to bring your mind back into the present, bust out a balance. It’s one of the most mindful things you can do. It compels you to be in the moment.”

Listen to Dr Michael Mosley's Just One Thing podcast here

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