Len Kaplan started having trouble walking in a straight line when he was in his fifties. Scoliosis combined with compressed discs in his back caused his balance to deteriorate.
“Physiotherapy, regular exercises, it just didn’t work. I needed something else,” said Len, now 80.
Around that time, Len and his wife, Ginny, took a cruise with twice-daily Tai Chi classes. Ginny, 77, said they loved Tai Chi — which consists of slow, controlled movements and deep breathing — so much that they found a lesson in nearby Yorba Linda, California, when they returned home. The habit stuck.
Len and Ginny have been taking regular Tai Chi and balance classes for over 15 years now. Len can easily walk in a straight line and his balance is improved. Last September, while visiting Greece, Len and Ginny decided to hike the nearly 100 steps to the top of the Acropolis. They went up, over smooth, uneven steps with no railings. They reached the top and were rewarded with ancient ruins and sweeping views of Athens below.
“At my age I know people who would say, ‘Oh no, I’m going to stand at the bottom of the parking lot and take pictures, thank you,'” Ginny said, “but how fun is that?”
Balance training is an important but often neglected skill, one that affects both our longevity and quality of life, starting around age 40. A June study by a Brazilian team found that 20 percent of 1,700 older adults tested could not balance on one leg for 10 seconds or more. And that inability to balance was associated with a twofold 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 failed, 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 doesn’t have to mean handstands and acrobatics. In fact, you can start at home without any equipment.
What the 10-second test can (and can’t) tell us
Falling is the second leading cause of accidental deaths from injury worldwide, but doctors don’t have an easy way to check balance, such as blood pressure or heart rate. This test, which can be done in less than a minute, gives the patient three attempts to stand on one leg for 10 seconds on each leg.
“The idea here was to come up with a really simple test that could be indicative of a person’s ability to balance,” says Dr. Jonathan Myers, a professor at Stanford University, a researcher at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System and an author of the balance study. He said the inability to perform this task was a powerful prediction of mortality. In the study, one in five people couldn’t handle it.
“With age, strength and balance diminish and that can lead to vulnerability. Vulnerability is very important as the population ages,” said Dr. myers.
Balance problems can be caused by a variety of factors, many of which are age-related, said Dr. Lewis Lipsitz, a professor of medicine at Harvard University and the director of the Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife.
When your vision is affected by cataracts, or if nerve signals from your feet to your brain slow down, it becomes more difficult to maintain your balance. While it’s impossible to prevent all types of age-related decline, you can counter the impact on your balance through specialized training and building strength.
“There’s a downward spiral of the people who don’t go out, who don’t walk, who don’t exercise, who don’t do balance training, and they get weaker and weaker. And muscle weakness is another major risk factor for falls,” he said.
Researchers have previously linked balance and strength to mortality, finding that the ability to move from the ground to a standing position, balance on one leg for 30 seconds with one eye closed, and even walk at a brisk pace, all associated with longevity.
But no test is perfect. Dan Layne, who leads the Center for Balance, where Len and Ginny study Tai Chi, said the Brazilian newspaper caused a stir in its classes, including balance and fall prevention. Many of his students, aged 30 to 105, tried and failed. They came to him, concerned.
“I have a lot of people who can’t balance for 10 seconds, but their balance control is fine. They don’t fall and they live a long life,” Mr. Layne said. Even if your vision is affected or your coordination is affected by arthritis, you can improve your balance — at any age.
“The body is very adaptive. And if one pathway doesn’t work to maintain your balance, training other pathways in the body and brain can help you overcome some handicaps,” said Dr. Lipsitz.
Balance training goes hand in hand with strength training. The stronger the muscles in your legs, glutes, feet and core, the better your balance. You can improve your balance by taking Tai Chi or yoga classes, as well as weights, dancing, rock climbing or aerobics classes are excellent ways to work on your balance skills.
“Really any kind of exercise seems to help with balance and fall risk,” says Dr. Avril Mansfield, a senior scientist at the KITE-Toronto Rehabilitation Institute who specializes in exercise science.
But some forms of exercise are better than others. If you do any movement on a smooth surface, without side-by-side movement, it won’t significantly improve your balance, said Dr. Rachael Seidler, a professor in the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology at the University of Florida. .
If you really want to improve your balance, said Dr. Seidler, you get the most benefit by focusing on several specific exercises.
Train your balance at home
So how do you get started? Fortunately, you don’t need any special equipment for most balance workouts and you can start at home. As with any new exercise program, talk to your doctor first and have a chair nearby to grab on to if you feel unsteady.
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.
Stand behind a chair and hold onto it with both hands. Lift one leg off the floor, bend the raised knee toward your chest, and stand on one leg for five seconds. Repeat five times and do the same with your other leg. Too easy? Hold the chair with one hand, release both hands, or close your eyes.
Stand with feet hip-distance apart, toes forward. Bend your knees and lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your weight on your heels. Extend your arms in front of you if you need help balancing, or squat lower if it’s too easy. Repeat 10 times. Hold a dumbbell to increase the difficulty.
Start on your hands and knees, back flat. Lift one leg straight behind you and raise the other arm straight in front of you, balancing on one knee and one hand. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Stand behind a chair and hold onto it with both hands. Lift one leg to the side and try to keep your body as still as possible. Repeat with the other leg, five times on each side. Increase the intensity by holding the leg up longer or letting go of the chair.
Stand up straight and put one foot straight in front of the other, with your heel touching your toe. Keep 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 harder.
Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer who focuses on fitness, health, wellness, and parenting.