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Can you pass the 10 second balance test?

How long you can stand on one leg is a surprisingly good indicator of how long you will live.

Our bodies do an amazing job of keeping us balanced on two legs. Our eyes, inner ears and nerves are all involved in sending information to our brains, which then work out the intricate details of continually keeping us balanced.


Try standing on one leg with your eyes closed to really appreciate how difficult it is.


To manage the task, our brains rely primarily on our sight. But there are two other systems that contribute data. Our inner ears have fluid-filled tubes with hair-like sensors in them that act like spirit levels in our heads. They are known as the vestibular system.


And our nervous system has a built-in mechanism that sends detailed signals to our brains about where our limbs are in space. That’s how we know where our arms and legs are without looking at them. It is known as proprioception.


Brilliant as it is, our balance naturally begins to deteriorate after about the age of 50.


Predicting longevity

How well we can stand on one leg appears to be quite a good indicator of how long we will live.


One study involved people aged between 51 and 75 standing on one leg for 10 seconds. For this study, they were asked to place the front of their free foot against the back of their opposite lower leg, while keeping their arms by their sides and looking straight ahead. They could use either foot and could choose the best of three attempts.


The number of participants able to last for 10 seconds decreased with age:

Aged 51-55 = 95%

Aged 56-60 = 92%

Aged 61-65 = 82%

Aged 66-70 = 63%

Aged 71-75 = 46%


The researchers followed up all the participants 12 years later. They found that those who had not been able to balance on one leg for 10 seconds had an 84% higher risk of death (from any cause) than those who could, even after adjusting for age, sex, BMI and other health variables.


Another study measured how long men and women aged 53 could stand on one leg with their eyes closed. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that those who had lasted less than two seconds were three times more likely to have died than those who had lasted ten seconds or more.


Can you pass the test?

Here’s how to test your own balance. Take off your shoes, stand next to a wall or piece of furniture that you can use for support if necessary, put your hands on your hips and stand on one leg (with your eyes open) until you either move your planted foot or touch the ground with the other one. You can use the best of three attempts.


These are the benchmarks by age:

Under 40: 45 seconds

40-49: 42 seconds

50-59: 41 seconds

60-69: 32 seconds

70-79: 22 seconds


How did you go?


Now try the same test with your eyes closed. This is much more difficult, so don’t be dismayed if you fail almost immediately at first. You can improve with practice.


Why is it so much harder with our eyes closed?

Without being able to use sight, our brains have to work much harder to keep our balance, using more data from our vestibular system and proprioception.


These are the benchmarks by age, for balancing on one leg with eyes closed.

Under 40: 15 seconds

40-49: 13 seconds

50-59: 8 seconds

60-69: 4 seconds

70-79: 3 seconds


Why balance matters

An important benefit of good balance is that we are less likely to stumble, and if we do stumble, we are more likely to be able to save ourselves from a fall.


As we get older, the consequences of falling become more severe and it can take longer to recover. Globally, falls are the second most common cause of accidental death (after road accidents).


In Australia, one in four people over 65 fall at least once per year. And if they are unlucky enough to break a hip, one in three of them die within 12 months.


Having a fall – or even just feeling unsteady on our feet – can make us less confident about exercising and keeping active in general. That can set up a vicious cycle because inactivity weakens our muscles, stiffens our joints and makes our balance worse, which only makes us less keen to exercise.


On the other hand, improving our balance strengthens all the bodily systems involved, including our core strength, and that makes it easier to keep active. And the more physically active we are, the more strength and balance we retain.


The benefits of better balance

These are some of the many benefits of better balance.


Stronger muscles

Standing on one leg builds the muscles in your legs, hips and bottom (your gluteal muscles or ‘glutes’), which gives you more strength to better enjoy many of life’s activities. It also makes you less likely to fall.


Improved coordination

Every time you challenge your balance, like standing on one leg, your eyes, muscles and joints send feedback to your brain, which then begins to make new nerve connections and recalibrate the coordination between your eyes, ears, muscles and joints. And all that improves your coordination.


Better posture

Balancing also strengthens the muscles that align your spine, which can alleviate back pain and improve your posture.


Reduced stress levels

Balancing requires focus and concentration, which can help to keep you in the moment and reduce stress.


Protected joints

Balancing strengthens the muscles that support the joints in your legs, protecting them from damage.


It’s never too late

Whatever time you managed in the tests, you can improve it. It’s important to keep challenging your balance to keep all those nerve connections strong. So it’s a good idea to include some formal balance exercises from about the age of 60. The good news is, that your balance can improve surprisingly quickly with practice.

An easy step to better balance

An easy way to begin improving your balance is to stand on one leg while cleaning your teeth. You can use one leg in the morning and the other leg at night, or one leg while flossing and the other one while brushing. A first, make sure you stand next to something you can hold onto, such as a basin or towel rail, in case you begin to wobble.


When that gets easy, start turning your head slowly from side to side while still standing on one leg. That challenges your vestibular system.


When you’ve mastered that, try doing it with your eyes closed. But be careful! Without the significant input from your vision, your brain has to work very hard to use only your vestibular system and proprioception to keep you balanced. It makes a great workout for your brain.


Remember to keep making it a bit harder as you master each step, so that you continue to challenge your body and improve.


Want more?

Another great version involves balancing on the ball of your foot, demonstrated here by Dr Peter Attia, a specialist in longevity medicine. Try it while waiting for the kettle to boil or the bus to arrive. (Video 2:45 mins)

Want less?

If you need to start with something gentler, the following video from the Royal Osteoporosis Society will be perfect for you. It guides you through a series of easy balance exercises that you can even begin while sitting down. (Video 17:15 mins)

Ongoing benefits

As long as you work some balance exercises into your everyday activities you will reap the many rewards:

  • Reduced risk of falls

  • Stronger muscles

  • Improved coordination

  • Better posture

  • Reduced stress levels

  • Protected joints

And you can move through your world with better strength and confidence.

Strike the right balance in your life!

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