Lynn Kaplan started having trouble walking in a straight line when he was in his fifties. Scoliosis with CDs in his back caused his balance to deteriorate. “Physical therapy, regular exercise, it just wasn’t mission accomplished. The now 80-year-old said.
Around that time, he and his wife, Jenny, took a cruise with tai chi classes twice daily. Jenny, 77, said they loved tai chi — which consists of slow, controlled movements and deep breathing — so much that they found a class nearby, when they got home. This habit stuck.
The two have now taken tai chi and balance classes regularly for over 15 years. Kaplan can easily walk in a straight line and his balance has improved. Last September, while visiting Greece, they decided to hike nearly 100 steps to the top of the Acropolis. They walked on slippery, uneven steps without handrails. They made it to the top and were rewarded with ancient ruins and sweeping views of Athens below. “At my age, I know people who would go, ‘Oh no, I’m going to stand down in the parking lot and take pictures, thanks,'” said Jenny, “but how fun is that? “
Balance training is an important, but often neglected skill — one that affects our longevity and quality of life, starting around the age of 40. Study in June By a Brazilian team it was found that 20 percent of 1,700 seniors tested were unable to balance on one leg for 10 seconds or more. This imbalance has been associated with a double risk of death from any cause within 10 years.
If you’ve tried the one-legged test (with a wall or chair nearby for safety) and it didn’t work, don’t panic. It’s never too late to start working on balance training, even if you can pass the 10-second test, especially if you’re over 50. This does not necessarily mean handstand and acrobatics. In fact, you can start at home without any equipment.
What the ten-second test can (and can’t) tell us
Falls are the second leading cause of death from unintentional injuries worldwide, yet doctors don’t have an easy way to check balance, such as blood pressure or pulse. In this test, which can be performed in less than one minute, the patient gets three attempts to do standing on one leg for 10 seconds.
“The idea here was just to come up with a really simple test that might be indicative of a person’s ability to balance,” said Dr. Jonathan Myers, a Stanford University professor, a researcher with the Palo Alto VA Health Care System and an author from the Balance Study. The inability to perform this task, he said, was a strong predictor of mortality. In the study, one in five people couldn’t manage it.
“With age, strength and balance tend to decrease and that can lead to weakness. Frailty is a really big thing now that the population is getting older,” Myers said.
Balance problems can be caused by a variety of factors, many of which are age-related, said Dr. Louis Lipsitz, professor of medicine at Harvard University.
When your vision is affected by cataracts, or nerve signals from your feet to your brain slow, this makes balance more difficult. While it is impossible to prevent all kinds of age-related decline, you can counteract the impact on your balance with specialized training and strength building.
“There is a downward spiral for people who don’t go out, don’t walk, don’t exercise, don’t do balance exercises, and they get weaker and weaker. Muscle weakness is another important risk factor for falls.”
Researchers have previously linked balance and strength to mortality, and found that the ability to get up from the floor to a standing position, balance on one leg for 30 seconds with one eye closed and even walk at a brisk pace were all linked to longevity.
Balance training goes hand in hand with strength training. The stronger the muscles in your legs, buttocks, and feet, the better your balance. You can improve your balance by taking tai chi or yoga classes, but weight training, dancing, rock climbing, or aerobics classes are also excellent ways to work on your balance skills. “Really any type of exercise seems to help with balance and fall risk,” said Dr. Avril Mansfield, a senior scientist at the Toronto Kite Rehabilitation Institute who specializes in kinesiology.
But some forms of exercise are better than others. If your only movement is going on a smooth surface, without side-to-side movement, you won’t improve your balance significantly, said Dr. Rachel Seidler, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Physiology and Kinesiology.
Seidler said that if you really want to improve your balance, you’ll get the most benefit by focusing on several specific exercises.
Train your balance at home
So how did it start? Fortunately, most balance exercises do not 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 get a chair near you if you feel unsettled.
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) Single leg position
Stand behind a chair, holding both hands. Lift one leg off the floor with the raised knee bent toward your chest and stand on one leg for five seconds. Repeat five times, then do the same with your other leg. very easy? Hold the chair with one hand, release both hands or try to close your eyes.
2) body weight squat
Stand with thighs and feet spaced, toes forward. Bend your knees and lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your weight in your heels. Spread your arms out in front of you if you need help with balance, or sit down if it’s too easy. Repeat 10 times. Hold the dumbbells to increase the difficulty.
3) Flying dog
Start on your hands and knees, your back flat. Lift one leg straight behind you and raise the opposite arm straight forward, balanced on one knee and one hand. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
4) side leg lifts
Stand behind a chair, holding both hands. Raise one leg to the side, trying to keep your body as still as possible. Repeat with the other leg, five times for each side. Increase the intensity by raising the leg for longer or leaving the chair.
5) Tandem position
Stand straight and place one foot directly in front of the other, with your heel touching your toe. Maintain an equal weight on both feet, knees slightly bent. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch feet, and repeat three times. Close your eyes to make it more difficult. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times