Unless you’re a tightrope walker, a gymnast or a dancer, chances are that balancing on one leg is something you give much thought to. But according to research, improving your balance could help you live longer. If you can stand on one leg unsupported for ten seconds flamingo-style it's a sign that you could be in good health overall and have a longer healthspan. Sounds easy, but according to the research by Bristol Medical School on 1,702 people aged 51-75, 20 per cent of them failed the test and had a much higher chance of dying sooner.
When the researchers followed up after seven years, 17.5 per cent of those who failed the 'flamingo test' had died, compared to only 4.6 per cent of those who aced it. Those who failed tended to be older, overweight and have diabetes. The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine , concluded that not being able to stand on one leg for ten seconds was associated with an 84 per cent increased risk of death during that time. It recommended that balance challenges such as this be included in health checks from now on.
Want to pass a balance test with flying colours? Read on for why being able to balance on one leg is so beneficial for health and four balance challenges to try.
Why is balance important?
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 BBC 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.
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 says. “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. Another 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 says.
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 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 Skelton. “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 from falling and having hip fractures,” she continues. “We also know that activities that improve balance include dual tasking, which makes the brain work harder, so there's some suggestion that it helps cognition and slows the chance of dementia.”
How to do the flamingo balance test
For the research, volunteers were asked to take off their shoes and socks, look straight ahead with their arms by their sides and tuck one foot behind the other calf. They were allowed three tries to see if they could stand on one leg for ten seconds. If your foot comes down or your arms go out to the side, the test is over. It's fairly easy to do for most people up to middle age, the trick is to still be good at it in your seventies and beyond. To become a 'super balancer' try these:
4 more 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.”
Entry level: standing on one leg eyes closed challenge
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 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
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 with your feet
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
Victoria Woodhall, Rocket 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, much of it is concentration, focusing your eyes on one spot (if you don’t believe me, try the eyes closed challenge above," she says.
"Tree pose (one foot on the inner thigh or on the calf if you're newer) is the classic yoga balance and it's easy to slot into your day. Doing little and often – while brushing your teeth or boiling the kettle – builds up strength and focus. Pick something in front of you to look at and don’t move your eyes as you shift the weight onto 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.”
“To up your balance game, try tree pose on an unstable surface (with a soft landing!) on the bed or on sand. 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.”
Practice Rocket Yoga with Victoria on Instagram here.
Listen to Dr Michael Mosley's Just One Thing podcast here