A good sense of balance is essential in our daily lives for basic activities like walking or climbing stairs, and it plays a key role in dynamic exercises and movements like playing sports. It’s easy to take good balance for granted in our younger years, and as we age, it can be difficult to notice our balance declining.
While a lack of balance can increase the risks of falling as we get older, studies have also tied poor balance with serious health issues.
The good news is, with some simple self-tests you can determine whether or not your level of balance is something to be concerned about. And there are things you can do to improve your balance even after you’ve started to get wobbly.
What Is Balance?
Balance can be a bit tricky to define. It’s maintained by multiple systems in the body coordinating and working together. From nerves, muscles, and movement receptors within your joints to eyesight, the inner ear, and the sensory system—all of these things work together to maintain balance. And it’s not something we’re born with; it’s an ability we gain early in life and slowly lose over time.
Technically, balance is the body’s ability to maintain its center of mass and distribute body weight over the base of support, especially during movement. And according to The American Heart Association, balance is one of the four types of exercise that should be incorporated into everyday activity, along with strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Studies have shown that a lack of balance can be associated with serious health problems and an increased risk of falls as we age. Earlier this year, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a decade-long study involving more than 1,700 middle-aged participants. The study found that an inability to balance nearly doubled the risk of impending death.
The researchers asked volunteers to stand on one leg with their other leg pressed against it, arms by their sides, eyes fixed straight ahead. Subjects were allowed three attempts to hold the position for 10 seconds. The inability to do so was found to be associated with an 84% increase in the risk of death from any cause within the next 10 years.
With numbers like that, focusing on prevention is crucial. Luckily, there are (literally) steps you can take to prevent serious problems.
What Causes Lack Of Balance?
Balance issues are often blamed on a lack of activity. But aging, slowing nerve signals, impaired vision, dips in blood pressure, and declines in other systems can also contribute to a decline in balance.
Whatever the cause, once balance starts to fail, it tends to accelerate into a downward spiral. If you’re unable to easily walk around your home—or if you’re afraid to—you’re unlikely to try more strenuous activity to keep your muscles robust. Further imbalances can develop as your muscles atrophy, which, in turn, increases the risk of falls.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said centuries ago, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And that couldn’t be more apropos when it comes to balance.
George Locker, author of Falling Is Not An Option and a long-term tai chi practitioner told The Guardian that the loss of balance very clearly begins at 45 and is difficult to reverse later in life. Prevention starting in midlife, he said, is imperative.
What You Can Do Now
Locker recommends taking up what he called “bent knee and ankle sports” such as ice skating, skiing, surfing, paddle boarding, or inline skating during your middle years to prevent balance problems.
If that sounds daunting, don’t worry. Tai chi is an extremely low-impact exercise that can bolster balance. You could even try something as simple as standing on one leg while brushing your teeth—but Locker recommends doing it with a bent leg to get your postural muscles firing.
As little as 15 minutes of balance exercise a day can be extremely beneficial. Start out with something easy, like the toothbrushing balance challenge. From there, try incorporating stationary or walking lunges. Once you’re feeling stronger, try using a box or step to do step-ups by pushing through your heels.
The important thing is to get started with some type of exercise to improve balance before symptoms become too debilitating. Your life could depend on it.