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The 10 most important seconds of your life

Recent research found that the inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in mid-to-later life is linked almost double the risk of death from any cause within the next 10 years.

The researchers found that balance starts to wane rapidly after people reach 60 years of age. Just under 18 per cent of 61-65 year olds were unable to complete the 10 second test; 37 per cent of 66-70 year olds failed. More than half (around 54 per cent) of those aged 71–75 were unable to complete the test.

In general, those who failed the test had poorer overall health, with higher obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and poor blood fat profiles.

After accounting for age, sex, and underlying conditions, an inability to stand unsupported on one leg for 10 seconds was associated with a whopping 84 per cent heightened risk of death from any cause within the next decade.

These are startling statistics, but it’s important to note that this was an observational study so no actual cause can be established. What can be established, however, is that working on our balance should be a high priority as we age.

Why do we lose balance as we age?

Rather than being a stand-alone condition, loss of balance can often be the symptom of another health condition. This explains why the researchers found such a strong correlation between balance and other conditions. The researchers concluded that the 10 second balance test should therefore be made part of all routine health checks for older people.

Some of the main issues that affect balance as we get older include: 

Circulation – as we age, our bodies become less efficient at pumping blood, which can sometimes result in a drop in blood pressure when we make a sudden move. The drop in blood pressure can momentarily make a person lose their balance, but recover quickly. 

Medication – dizziness or vertigo is a common side effect of many medications, like antidepressants, sedatives and high blood pressure medication.

Nutrition – low iron levels are more common as you get older and anaemia can cause weakness and poor balance.

Inactivity – the less you move, the less efficient the unconscious processes your brain follows to keep you upright become. The less active you are, the more you also compromise your joints, mobility and muscle tone – the other things that keep you upright.

How can we improve balance, no matter our age?

The good news is, many of the causes of poor balance can be addressed at any age. There are no miracle pills here: just the same ‘stay active’ message we’ve been hearing all our lives.

The current recommendation for movement is being active in some capacity every day, building up to 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. ‘Moderate’ means still being able to talk while exercising, just not easily.

A brisk 30 minute walk on most days is enough, but other activities you might like to try are swimming, biking, bowls, dancing, golf, tennis, aqua aerobics, jogging or exercise classes at your local gym.

In addition to moving more, you can also become steadier on your feet by building strength. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi are all good for this, as is lifting weights or doing callisthenics.

Balance to improve balance

Of course, one of the best ways to improve your balance is to simply practise balancing. Don’t be alarmed if you’re not able to hold your balance for long at first. With a regular routine, you’ll quickly build up, strengthening neural pathways and muscles as you go.

  • Stand next to a table, bench or chair and gently use it for support.
  • Stand up nice and straight and focus your gaze on a fixed point in front of you.
  • Lift your leg to stand on one foot for as long as you can.
  • Swap to the other leg when you are ready.
  • Build up to not having to hold onto any support while you are on one leg.
  • Next build up the amount of time you stay balanced on each leg for.
  • Then build up to moving the leg you’re not balancing on to the front, to the side and behind you while you maintain balance on the other leg.

Once you’re confident, practise balancing whenever you can. Standing on one leg while brushing your teeth is a good habit to get into. As is balancing while waiting in a queue, watching television or waiting for your morning coffee or tea.