‘I managed eight seconds, not bad for a 62-year-old,’ says Dr Michael Mosley (pictured)
A few days ago, eight long weeks after rupturing my Achilles tendon, I was finally able to stop wearing my orthopaedic boot and give up crutches.
Now that I can get around without them, I’m slowly getting back to my regular exercise routines.
This means that as well as aerobic exercises, such as swimming or cycling, and strength exercises, I am trying to do more balance exercises.
Having good balance is really important for your health, not least because it means you are less likely to fall over (injuries caused by falls at home cost the NHS about £450 million a year).
But surprisingly, having good balance is also a powerful predictor of dementia, as well as how long, and how healthily you will live.
LONGEVITY TEST YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED
One of things that I often ask people to try, and which they find surprisingly difficult, is standing on one leg with their eyes closed.
If you want to try this test, you will need to get a friend with a watch or mobile phone with a stopwatch.
Start by taking off your shoes. Now put your hands on your hips and stand on one leg.
When you are ready, close your eyes.
You will be dismayed how quickly you start to sway. The test is over as soon as you shift your planted foot or when you have to put your raised foot down on the ground to stop yourself falling over.
The importance of the one-legged test has been demonstrated many times, most impressively in a big study carried out by the Medical Research Council a few years ago
Be warned: if you are over 40, you are unlikely to last more than ten seconds. To get an accurate score, take an average of three attempts.
To find out exactly how you measure up, compared to the averages for your age, see the Test Yourself box below.
The importance of the one-legged test has been demonstrated many times, most impressively in a big study carried out by the Medical Research Council a few years ago.
For this study, started back in 1999, they tested 2,760 men and women who, at that time, were all 53 years old.
They asked the volunteers to do three simple tests. These included measuring their grip strength, measuring how quickly they could stand upright from sitting and how long the volunteers could stand on one leg with their eyes closed.
When the researchers returned 13 years later, they discovered that during that time 177 of the volunteers had died: 88 from cancer, 47 from heart disease, and 42 from other causes.
Try taking up t’ai chi to improve your balance, a healthy form of exercise which combines breathing and relaxation with flowing movements
Looking through their data, the researchers found that all three of the tests they had carried out in 1999 had, independently, predicted the chance that someone would die, but the one-legged standing test had been the strongest indicator.
It turned out that those who did poorly – they could only manage two seconds or less on average – were three times more likely to have died over the next 13 years than those who could stay standing for ten seconds or more.
The sitting-standing test was also a good predictor of future health. For this test you have to sit down in a chair without arms and then see how many times you can go from sitting to standing in a minute.
People who managed to move from sitting to standing more than 36 times in a minute were twice as likely to still be alive as those who could only manage to do 23.
GOOD NEWS… YOU CAN IMPROVE YOUR BALANCE
SO why is standing on one leg with your eyes closed so much harder than standing on one leg with your eyes open? After all, most people can manage more than 30 seconds of one-legged standing if they don’t close their eyes.
Well, it is because your brain uses three types of information to keep you upright.
One of the main things that keeps you standing upright are messages coming from the fluid-filled semi-circular canals in your inner ear.
How long should I be able to balance for?
The following numbers are based on a study where American researchers asked people from different age groups to balance on one leg so they could tell what ‘normal’ looks like.
As you can see, ability to do the one-legged test with eyes closed tends to fall off rapidly with age…
- People under 40 with eyes open averaged 45 seconds. With eyes closed: 15 seconds.
- Aged 40-49 with eyes open averaged 42 seconds. With eyes closed: 13 seconds.
- Aged 50-59 with eyes open averaged 41 seconds. With eyes closed: 8 seconds.
- Aged 60-69 with eyes open averaged 32 seconds. With eyes closed: 4 seconds.
- Aged 70-79 with eyes open averaged 22 seconds. With eyes closed: 3 seconds.
The so-called vestibular system is a bit like a spirit level, constantly telling your brain whether or not your head is on the level. Your brain also relies on feedback from your joints and muscles to help maintain balance.
There are special sensors, known as proprioceptors, in your joints that send signals to your brain, telling it what is going on.
Last, but by no means least, there are your eyes. These give your brain an accurate measure of where your head and body are, in respect to your surroundings.
When you close your eyes, you remove vision from the equation, and many people find they then really struggle to do the relatively tricky task of standing upright on one leg.
If your balance is not as good as you would like, don’t despair. Like any other skill, there are things you can do to improve it.
First, practise balancing while brushing your teeth. This is something I do most mornings and evenings. I while away the two minutes that I spend brushing my teeth by trying to improve my balance. I stand on my left leg, with my eyes open, then my right, for 30 seconds. I do each leg twice.
Try taking up t’ai chi, a healthy form of exercise which combines breathing and relaxation with flowing movements.
Studies have shown that taking up t’ai chi will significantly reduce the risk of falls, as well as providing multiple other health benefits too.
Lose weight. A recent study in Australia found that people who are overweight or obese are significantly more likely to report falling over and to injure themselves than people who are slim.
Try all or any one of these approaches, and you should soon see an improvement.
Do you have a question for Dr Mosley? Email [email protected] or write to him at The Mail on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT. Dr Mosley can only answer in a general context and cannot give personal replies.