A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine gives an eye-opening insight into balance and health.
Researchers asked participants between the ages of 51 and 75 to balance on one leg for 10 seconds with their head up and arms to their sides.
While most participants could hold the pose for 10 seconds, 20 percent of the group were unable to do so. When the researchers followed up seven years later, they found that members of the group who failed were 84 percent more likely to have died than those who could maintain a 10-second one-legged stance.
Time out: I just stepped away from my desk and timed myself balancing on one foot and then the other. I’m good—but just checking.
The point of the story is that maintaining abilities such as balancing on one foot plays a huge role in aging and longevity.
Balance is a great measure of function and overall health, because falling is the No. 1 cause of injury-related death in people who are older than 65.
But it’s not only balance that can predict health in later years. Things such as strength, flexibility, and level of activity also play a role in determining mobility, quality of life, and even memory.
Over the years, I have run into a number of people who say they can’t get down to and up from the floor. Some were relatively young, which surprised me. As a result, I began doing something I call up-downs, which involves repeatedly getting down to and up from the floor. I know, they should be called down-ups, but work with me—it’s just a name. My goal is to do 10 of them each day, in the hope that if, sometime in the distant future, I should fall, I will have improved my chances of being able to get up.
There are a number of ways to maintain or improve your level of functioning as you age.
Walk, ideally a half-hour each day, if you’re able to. Walking is the gold standard for staying mobile. It keeps muscles engaged and strong, increases the circulation of blood and oxygen to the cells, and may help to delay the onset of or improve memory loss.
Regular physical activity actually increases the number of cells in the hippocampus, an area in the brain related to learning and memory. In addition, scientists have found that increasing the number of daily steps from 3,000 to 7,000 reduces the risk of mortality by half for people older than 60.
Choose an Activity
If walking isn’t your thing, choose an activity—any activity—that will keep you moving. Biking is a great exercise and can help you to maintain your balance. Swimming helps with flexibility. Running is a good way to maintain cardio health. You get the idea—whatever works for you to stay active is a good choice.
Improve your balance. This is as simple as practicing the 10-second one-leg test daily. You can start by holding onto the back of a chair or standing near a wall and work your way up to balancing without support. You can literally reduce your risk of falling by working on your balance for as little as a minute or two every day.
Practice Yoga or Tai Chi
Both are slow-moving and intentional and can be adapted to the needs of those with limited mobility. Yoga and tai chi are both good choices to maintain physical functioning because they help to increase strength, flexibility, and range of motion. In addition, regular practice of either yoga or tai chi can dramatically reduce stress.
Add some strength exercises to avoid frailty. There are a number of options from which to choose, depending on your ability and interest. Hand weights or resistance bands can be used to strengthen both your arms and legs, or you can do wall push-ups or planks—starting with modified positions and working up. To avoid injuries or overdoing it, find a trainer or physical therapist who can set you up with the right equipment and help you with your form.
Stretch to maintain your flexibility. This is something that many people overlook as a part of staying fit and functional, which is puzzling because it feels so good. If you’re new to stretching, I recommend getting some professional guidance from a trainer or physical therapist.
The bottom line is that there are a number of ways to avoid losing mobility and function as you age. Nowhere is the phrase “use it or lose it” more appropriate than when it comes to staying active as you get older. The key is finding activities that work best for you and doing them regularly. Your body will thank you.