Bruce Lee today is viewed by many as much for his philosophy as for his athletic skill and artistry. A quote attributed to him you’ll often see is: “Balance your thoughts with action. If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” It is not only great advice but also a reminder of one of the most important words in the English language — balance.
It is a word that is applied in so many important ways. Sure, there’s finding balance between thoughts and action. But there is also the concept of finding work/life balance, or the importance of a balanced diet. In essence, it is the concept of reaching a condition where different elements in life are equal or settled in correct proportion of one to another.
It also refers to the ability to distribute your weight in a way that lets you stand or move without falling. As pointed out recently by Matthew Solan of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, “Balance is a skill you don’t think about until you really need it.”
“While keeping proper balance may seem simple, it involves a complex system with many moveable parts,” Solan adds. Here’s how it works: “Whenever you move, your eyes and brain process information about your surroundings. Your feet detect changes in the terrain. Your arms swing to keep you stable, and your lower-body muscles and joints generate rapid power so you can move forward, stop, and change directions. Unfortunately, this system works less effectively over time. The sensation of our bodies moving through space is not as crisp, and information travels more slowly between the body and brain. Muscles become weaker, and joints lose flexibility.”
Many of the physical changes that accompany aging often go unseen or ignored. Evan Papa is an associate professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science at Tufts University. “Aging is a process that affects the systems and tissues of every person,” he explains in a recent post on The Conversation. “The rate and magnitude of aging may be different for each person, but overall physical decline is an inevitable part of life. Most people think aging starts in their 60s, but in fact we spend most of our life span undergoing the process of decline, typically beginning in our 30s.”
“Balance is affected by vision, the inner ear, and mechanical issues,” notes Dr. Sonja Rosen, a professor of medicine and chief of geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, writes in a post on seniorplanet.org. She adds that once past the age of 50, aging-related changes can occur in the vestibular system, a sensory system essential to normal movement and equilibrium. “Vision problems like cataracts and glaucoma can also lead to balance issues.”
According to Papa, the loss of strength and poor balance are two of the most common causes of falls: “Each year, about 1 in every 4 older adults experience a fall. In fact, falls are the leading cause of injuries in adults ages 65 and older.” Yet there are things that people can do to change this statistic for the better. “Adopting lifestyle changes such as regular, long-term exercise can reduce the consequences of aging, including falls and injuries. … Following a healthy diet, managing chronic conditions, reviewing medications with health care professionals, maintaining a safe home environment and getting regular vision checkups can also help reduce the risk of falls in older adults,” he writes. Remarks Dr. Brad Manor, associate director of the Mobility and Falls Translational Research Center with Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife, “Balance is definitely a use-it-or-lose-it skill.”
“We regularly need … a one-legged posture, to move out of a car, to climb or to descend a step or stair and so on,” declares Dr. Claudio Gil Araujo of Exercise Medicine Clinic — CLINIMEX — Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a recent CNN health report. “To not have this ability or being afraid in doing so, it is likely related to loss of autonomy, and, in consequence, less exercise and the snowball starts,” he explains.
If you are comfortable doing so, try following this basic exercise: Standing close to a wall or table or another person for support, carefully lift one leg and wrap it around the other. Try and hold it for 10 seconds. According to a new study published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “an inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in later life is linked to nearly double the risk of death from any cause within the next decade,” reports CNN’s Katie Hunt.
Adds CNN, the study cited took place between 2009 and 2020 and involved 1,702 people ages 51 to 75 living in Brazil. Participants had an average age of 61. Two-thirds were men. “Around 1 in 5 failed to balance on one leg for 10 seconds at the initial checkup,” Hunt says. Hunt also explains that this research was “observational” and “doesn’t reveal cause and effect.” It did not consider any possible “biological mechanisms that might explain the link between poor balance and longevity.”
Dr. Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine in the Institute of Cardiovascular & Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow, who wasn’t involved in the study, tells CNN that he found the research interesting but not definitive. “If someone cannot do the 10 seconds and is worried, they should reflect on their own health risks,” he says. “As one leg standing requires good balance, linked to brain function, good muscle strength and good blood flow, it likely integrates muscular, vascular and brain systems so it is a global test of future mortality risk — albeit crude,” says Sattar.
“Everyone should consult with a health care professional or a qualified physical therapist to determine the most appropriate exercises for their specific needs,” cautions Papa.
“Even though it’s better to exercise throughout your life, it’s never too late to start,” says Harvard cardiologist Dr. Aaron Baggish. Says Dr. Manor, “If you work on your balance continuously, you are almost guaranteed to see improvements.”