Balancing for a Longer Life

Ronnie Schultz, a 66-year-old who lives in Manhattan, finds creative ways to work on her balance daily. She believes that balance is the key to living a longer, more fulfilling life, a theory that is now backed by science. New research shows that an inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in later life nearly doubles the risk of death from any cause within the next decade.

The findings were published in June by the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that the proportion of deaths was nearly four times higher among those who couldn’t complete the balance test as compared to those who could. During the study, researchers observed participants and their ability to complete a balance test for seven years. One in five participants failed to balance on one leg for 10 seconds at their initial screening. Over 50% of the patients between the ages of 71 and 75 were unable to complete the test compared to 5% from ages 51 to 55.

This association between being unable to balance and higher risk of death is consistent when other factors are considered, such as sex, age, BMI or health conditions including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. While the study did not examine cause and effect, it did expose a correlation between balance and lifespan.

“People should test their balance like they check their blood pressure,” says Dr. Claudio Gil Araújo, principal investigator of the study and dean of research and education at the Exercise Medicine Clinic, CLINIMEX, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “In many situations in your daily life, you have to stand on one leg. To get into the car, to get up and down stairs. You’re balancing on one foot and then the other.”

[READ: Best Exercises for Preventing Falls in Older Adults.]

Establish a Balance-Focused Exercise Routine

Schultz practices her balance every day from the convenience of her home. Every week, she works virtually with a yoga teacher and strength trainer to learn new balancing techniques and receive guidance. She also rides a Peloton bike daily, strength trains with Peloton exercise classes and uses a BOSU ball, a balance training device with a flat, hard surface on one side and a ball-shaped softer feel on the other side. Or, Schultz uses a thick foam pad and a MOBO board, which is similar to a BOSU ball but sits closer to the ground and has a wooden, flat surface with a footprint indentation indicating where to place your foot for balance exercises.

Over time, she’s built confidence in her mobility and balance, which affords her the opportunity to function on a high level and to continue to do the things she loves. She takes care of herself, plays with and picks up her dogs, cooks, cleans and moves around comfortably.

“I think that if I did not do the work that I do, I would not be able to sit on the floor with my great niece and nephew and play with them and put them on my back,” Schultz says. “Their mom told me, ‘No one gets on the floor and plays with them the way you do.'”

[READ: 12 Best Equipment-Free Strength Exercises for Older Adults.]

Incorporate Balance in Daily Life

Shultz doesn’t miss a chance to become more skillful at balancing. She finds herself balancing on one leg while waiting to cross the street and while brushing her teeth. She even challenges her balance while multitasking, such as cooking and prepping food.

“I brush my teeth on one leg,” Shultz says. “I have a two-minute timer on my electric toothbrush, and I hardly ever touch the sink. I don’t want to lose that opportunity to do a balancing pose.”

Araújo also suggests balancing during daily activities to make it a habit. If someone is new at balancing, he advises having a wall, chair or countertop close by for support. While he used a 10-second test for his study, he believes that every individual’s balance skill level is unique and that it’s important to challenge yourself.

[See: Foods That Age You.]

Have a Beginner’s Mindset

Schultz started exercising at age 41, after she experienced major health problems with an arrhythmic heart, osteopenia and high blood pressure. All of these health problems have since improved or completely subsided, which she and her doctors attribute to her healthy lifestyle and exercise in combination with medical treatment.

“I was a late-comer,” Schultz says, “I didn’t do it overnight, and I didn’t love it at the beginning, but it was my illness with my heart that put it in my head. I motivated myself to get fit.”

Beyond motivation, Schultz is consistent and chooses to practice balancing exercises she is not particularly strong at. And she makes it a point to work on her balance, especially on the days she doesn’t feel like it.

“I’m happy to fail because I want to improve,” Schultz says. “I want to get stronger. I want to get healthier. I want to get more confident in my head as well. There are days where I don’t really feel like practicing yoga. Those are the days that are more important to show up. Often they are my best sessions.”

It’s Never Too Late to Start

Araújo sees patients in their 90s who are starting to work on their balance. Regardless of your age and skill level, he stresses the importance of having the right mindset and challenging your balance, especially if you struggle with it.

“I speculate there’s a vicious cycle,” Araújo says. “Someone says, ‘I’m not good at yoga so I’m not going to go there.’ That’s the wrong approach. If you lose your balance in 10 seconds or less, it’s time to start as soon as possible.”

Balance to Help Prevent Falls and for Overall Well-Being

Schultz not only views her balancing skills as a way to mitigate the risk of falling as she ages, but also as a signifier of overall health.

“I hope it helps me if I ever fall to the ground, so that I won’t break a hip,” Schultz says. “That I’ll fall differently than someone who doesn’t do this work. The balance work is not just to prevent injuries, it’s for good health for my body.”

For the elderly, falls are often associated with their cause of death, but Araújo emphasizes that there are often additional factors that cause people to fall in the first place.

“People say that people die because they have falls, but that’s not exactly right. Many of them cannot successfully complete 10-seconds on one leg, which means that this man or woman is likely to be unfit, and is most likely not physically active.”

A Practice of Self-Worth

Schultz plans to continually work on herself and her balance in multi-faceted ways. Her perspective is that maintaining good balance will help her live a longer, more fulfilling life, and that makes balancing worth it.

“What makes me do it is my life. I want to be here longer. And I’m hoping if I stay healthy, it will keep me here longer because I value my life and my time here.”

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