Chances are that when you step into the fitness world, it’s mainly for better strength, bigger muscles, more speed and aesthetics. You want to be fit in order to burn fat, lose weight, or gain muscle. And, of course, it’s for your general wellbeing. But as we move from the treadmill to the squat-rack, from the cycle to the running track, and from the yoga mat to the pull-up bar and foam-roller, we forget one of the most important aspects of fitness: balance.
A set of intriguing but slightly morbid researches on the importance of balance go so far to say that you can use it to determine the potential risk of a stroke or cerebral small vessel disease. You can do so by testing how long you can stand on one leg. This test is shaped by the World Health Organisation’s claim that ‘falling’ is the second-commonest cause of accidents leading to death worldwide. In fact, scientists have found ways to determine just how important balance is.
This is not new research. A BBC article quotes a 1999 research which tested balance in more than 2,700 people in their 50s by measuring their grip and how they could stand on one leg with their eyes closed. Then they revisited the health of these people 13 years later and found that the balance test “was a predictor of how likely it was a person would die from cancer or a heart attack.”
An article published in the British Medical Journal, called Inability To Balance On One Leg Reflects Risk Of Brain Bleed cites Japanese research. “Our study found that the ability to balance on one leg is an important test for brain health,” it quotes lead author and associate professor at the Center for Genomic Medicine at Kyoto University, Yasuharu Tabara.
One might think balance is not all that important, but most of us spend around half our lives on one leg. It may take time to develop, but the brain has a remarkable ability to build new connections. The importance of balance is also not limited to determining longevity. Balance is associated with body awareness, reaction time, coordination of muscle groups, and joint stability. Balance is a huge factor in separating elite athletes from the rest. It is what kept India’s first Olympic gold medalist in athletics Neeraj Chopra from falling over at the end of his javelin throw. It is what allows Lionel Messi stay on his feet while he’s waltzing past opponent after opponent at speed.
So how can you test your balance? Most of the research papers mentioned above cite three ways to measure balance, all of which can be tried at home. There are two caveats though: do not risk falling and try them near a wall so there is support should you need it. Finally try to not panic and draw conclusions on longevity or disease from your results. Instead, work on your balance, because you can get better at it.
The first task is to stand up from a sitting position without support and doing it multiple times to test your entire body balance. Treat this as a warm-up for the other two exercises, which involve standing on one leg. Next, try the test of standing on one leg with your eyes open. The Japanese study mentioned above states that the inability to balance on one leg for 20 seconds shows future stroke risk. Once again, this is simply a marker of your health and it can be worked on with regular exercise and balance training. The last and most advanced test is to stand on one leg with eyes closed. Doing this for even 10 seconds is a sign of good health.
There are ways to work on your balance and make these tests easier. An article, The Importance Of Balance Training in BodyInBalanceRehab.com suggests holding onto a wall or chair with both hands to support yourself. As you get better at it, you can then move on to using just one hand for support, then one finger, and finally no support whatsoever. “Incorporating balance training into your exercise routine helps to maintain or improve your balance, which is needed to prevent falls and fractures. As we age, our balance can deteriorate, something we want to avoid,” the article states.
Yoga and Tai Chi are the most effective routines to improve your balance. They can also easy to practice at home. This 15-minute video from Yoga with Kassandra is an excellent way to start practicing balance.
More advanced fitness enthusiasts can use the BOSU ball for their workouts. The ball is basically used to create an unstable surface for one to practice their exercises on. The very funny duo of physiotherapists, called Bob & Brad, suggest these exercises, not only to increase balance, but also to restore it post injury.
As we age, balance deteriorates unless you keep working on it. Critical Bench Compound has a routine for seniors who can use the BOSU ball to avoid getting into situations where a lack of balance can lead to a fall.
As you embark on this journey, remember that your body and mind can learn (and relearn) new things with regular workouts. Incorporate balance in daily activities, like while brushing your teeth, or combing your hair. The biggest enemies of this trait are sitting continuously and not addressing muscle imbalances, like putting more weight on one leg than the other. After all, at the end of the day, what is life but a balancing act?
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.