Can good balance prolong your life?
by: Anna Lamnari, MD
For the last half year, when walking from parking lot to my office building, I would hop on a curb alongside a lawn and walk it as if it were a balance beam. Admittedly, it is not quite the way you expect a middle-aged woman to walk, so it gets me a fair share of puzzled glances. But I persist. Let me tell you why.
Balance is such a key concept in medicine. We talk about balanced diet, work-life balance and balanced emotions. But curiously, we don’t pay much attention to actual physical balance. That is until a person falls and sustains an injury.
What started me on my curb-walking was a research linking three exercises (one-legged balance, grip strength and squats) that correlated with longevity. Yes, longevity – the holy grail of medicine. Naturally, I set out to test myself. Squats and grip strength turned out to be no problem. The balance exercise sounded really simple, so I left it for the very end. The researchers had the subjects stand on one leg with eyes closed and measured the time. Anything below 5 seconds was abnormal. Didn’t seem to me like a challenge. That is, until I tried it.
No matter what I did, I could not keep my balance. As soon I as closed my eyes, I would sway like a hurricane-battered palm tree. Five seconds was out of the question on the first attempt. And the second. And third. It was beyond embarrassing. And what did it say about my ability to live longer life?
Oh, I can almost see you smirk. Seriously, woman. Five seconds? Anybody can do five seconds.
Do me a favor. Drop what you doing, stand up with hands on your hips, pick up one leg off the floor just a few inches. Then close your eyes.
Terrified by my poor performance I added balance exercises to my routine and I am happy to report that things have improved significantly since.
So let me ask you: when was the last time you did any balance exercises?
In truth, unless we work with a good personal trainer or have some specific reason to focus on balance, like a previous fall (or reading a scary research article) – we usually don’t pay balance any special attention.
Too bad, because the benefits of balance training are many.
It goes without saying: it decreases your risk for fall. You may think it is no big deal, unless, of course, you did fall in the past and understand the consequences first hand. Aside from the obvious ones, like suffering a contusion, or even a fracture, which can put one out of a commission for several months, great many people develop fear of falling. It doesn’t sound like much, but believe me, it is. Like a subtle static in the background, not easily noticed at first, it may run in the back of your head, unconsciously preventing you from exercising, walking outside and generally enjoying activities you gave no second thought before.
But beyond that, balance training tones and increases strength of your thighs, hip and core muscles. When your body micro-corrects your posture and position of your legs, trunk and arms to maintain the balance, it activates these muscles and adds to the toning effect. Balance exercises are great for joint stabilization, coordination and developing body awareness. They help with agility, or your ability to move efficiently and gracefully. Not to mention the injury prevention.
And then, more interestingly, good balance correlates with longevity. Hmm… you may say, this seems obvious. If you don’t fall, you don’t injure yourself. Less injuries = longer life. And you would be right. Partly right.
Longevity effect of balance seems to be independent of just preventing the fall injuries. In the study of Japanese elders, improved sense of balance seemed to have prevented all different causes of mortality with the exception of cancer.
Of course, as the scientist like to point out, just because two things correlate does not mean that one of them causes the other. So, at this point I cannot tell you with 100% certainty that improving balance causes people to live longer. But it certainly raises lots of interesting possibilities.
Meanwhile, I plan to keep walking the curbs and otherwise working on my balance. And I would suggest you do too. American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing the balance exercises at least three times a week.
Perhaps you are already doing yoga and Tai Chi, both being fantastic balance enhancers. But if you’d like to try something more focused, that you can on the go, try this program designed by scientists from Lund University in Sweden, called BEEP (Balance Enhancement Exercise Program). Warm up before by dancing to your favorite song or jogging in place for 3 minutes. BEEP contains three exercises
1/ knee squats: knees shoulder width apart, hands on the hips, eyes open. Imagine that you are sitting down on the chair. Go as deep as you can, but no deeper than until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Straighten your legs again. Repeat 10 times.
2/ heel/calf raises: stand with arms crossed over your chest, eyes open. Raise your heels and come up on your toes. Hold for as long as you can, up to 10 seconds. Come down. Repeat 3 times, 5 seconds apart.
3/ one-legged stance: hands on your hips, pick up one leg 6-7 inches from the floor. Fix your eyes on a point about 6 feet away. Do it for as long as you can or up to 1 minute. Repeat with the other leg.
You may add a degree of difficulty by doing the exercises on a soft, compliant surface, such as a yoga or exercise mat folded in two. After you feel proficient with the exercises, you may give them a try with eyes closed.
Let me know how it is going. How else have you been working on your balance?
Originally posted on sixtyandme.com on 9/27/2017
1/ Nofuji Y et al. Associations of Walking Speed, Grip Strength, and Standing Balance With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality in a General Population of Japanese Elders. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2016 Feb;17(2):184.e1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2015.11.003. Epub 2015 Dec 21.
2/ Anna Hafström, MD, PhD et al. Improved Balance Confidence and Stability for Elderly After 6 Weeks of a Multimodal Self-Administered Balance-Enhancing Exercise Program. A Randomized Single Arm Crossover Study, Gerontol Geriatr Med. 2016 Jan-Dec; 2: 2333721416644149.