Can you complete a 10-second balance test? A new study shows it can indicate your overall health

Can you complete a 10-second balance test? A new study suggests it can indicate your overall health
A new study found that 20 percent of participants were unable to perform a 10-second single-leg balance test.

Researchers believe that balance may be a better indicator of our overall health than ever before and want to incorporate balance testing into regular medical visits.

If you are experiencing balance problems, experts recommend working with your health care provider to determine the cause of the balance problem.

Have you ever had your balance tested as part of a routine physical exam? A new study suggests it may be worthwhile. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, examined whether 10 seconds of standing on one leg could be used as an overall indicator of health, and now scientists recommend adding the test to your regular visits to the doctor.

Researchers examined the ability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in 1,702 people aged 51 to 75 years between 2008 and 2020. Participants were asked to stand on one leg with their free leg on the back of the standing leg and their arms on either side of their body. They were given three opportunities to complete the balancing task.

About 20 percent of the participants were unable to complete the balance, and the number unable to balance increased with age. The study found that 5% of participants aged 51 to 55 failed, 8% of participants aged 56 to 60 failed, 18% of participants aged 61 to 65 failed, about 37% of participants aged 66 and 70 failed, and 54% of those aged 71 to 75 failed. Overall, those who failed the test tended to have higher body weight, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes.

After adjusting for age, gender and current health status, the scientists estimated that those who could not stand on one leg for 10 seconds were associated with an 84 percent increased risk of death over the next seven years. Factors such as recent falls, current physical activity group, diet, smoking or drug use were not considered. The researchers recommend adding this test to regular physical health checks.

What experts want to emphasize from this study is that successfully performing a 10-second balance does not prevent heart disease, diabetes or other illnesses. The study itself focused on "all-cause mortality", which can be related to many different things.

In the context of this study, those who were able to complete a 10-second single-leg stand had a reduced risk of falling and therefore a reduced overall risk of death, explains Robert Parrison, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mount Sinai.

But it may be a good idea to add the test to your exam room. Arturo Miguel, PT, a physical therapist, says it's something he'd like to start seeing doctors include in their annual physicals. "It takes 10 seconds, it's easy to spot when a person is off balance, and it's fairly safe," he says.

For now, it's not something doctors typically consider during your annual visit. "Typically, it's the patient who brings [the balance] in, not the doctor who asks for it," says James Gladstone, MD, director of sports medicine at Mount Sinai. He encourages patients with balance problems to mention it to their physicians, as this will open up the question of why the balance problem is occurring in the first place. "The key thing is to try to figure out why you're losing balance, and then you can treat it any way you want."

But, Miguel warns, a person likely won't even feel like they're out of balance. He suggests paying attention to things like feeling like you're moving when you're not exercising, if you're constantly bumping into things, or needing to hold onto things when you move.

Why is balance so important to overall health?
Dr. Gladstone says if someone is having trouble with balance, it may be due to weakness related to an underlying illness, injury or inactivity. This could be related to muscle strength and coordination problems caused by nerve damage in the spine or legs. Other balance-related problems may come from peripheral neuropathy, in which case you may lose sensation or feel weakness or pain in your arms and legs. But it could also be a problem with your ears or your head or brain, he says.

But for most health professionals, when it comes to balance, the real concern is that a lack of balance means you're more likely to fall or get hurt, Dr. Gladstone says. "As you get older, your bones become more brittle, so if you fall, the risk of fracture is higher," he says.

Falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and adults over the age of 60 have the highest number of falls. In addition to the physical effects of falls, Miguel adds that falls can lead to longer hospital stays, lower insurance premiums and even increase your risk of suffering additional injuries.

How to improve your balance
The key to improving balance problems is to first determine what's causing them. Then, you can work with your health care provider to plan the best way to deal with your concerns, Dr. Parisien says.

If there are bone density problems, your doctor may recommend increasing your calcium or vitamin D intake in addition to certain exercises, he says. If you have vestibular problems related to the inner ear, there are also many exercises to improve balance Dr. Gladstone says, and you can try a physical therapist.

Problems related to muscle issues can use balance exercises to build stability and strength. Miguel recommends maintaining good leg strength with exercises and staying active every day.

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