Why does being able to balance on one leg matter? Poor balance is the leading cause of falling which is the second most common cause of accidental deaths after traffic accidents. And the frightening news is that each successive generation of humans is getting worse at physical balance. ABC radio host Julie Clift and I discuss why balance matters and what we can do to improve it.
Julie: Recently you mentioned that it’s better to exercise outdoors than indoors. Why? Is it because we’re getting vitamin D from sun exposure or is there more to the story?
There’s definitely more to the story. Not only does spending time in nature reduce stress and strengthen our immune system, even jogging on city pavements confers added benefits when compared to running on a treadmill. Exercising outdoors improves our balance much more than exercising indoors. That’s because we’re negotiating uneven surfaces and we have to pay more attention to our surroundings so that we don’t run into something. A strong wind and preoccupied pedestrians also challenge our balance. And poor balance is an underrated threat to our physical and mental health.
Julie: Why is that?
Poor balance leads to an increased risk of falls, and falls are the second most frequent cause of accidental deaths after traffic accidents. The scary thing is that humans are getting worse at physical balance with each successive generation because we are not moving our muscles enough. Between 1990 and 2017 the number of deadly falls around the world nearly doubled.
The other contributor to poor balance is sitting for too many hours. So stand up for two minutes every half hour and have a stretch — or read this Health-e-Byte while standing!
Julie: What’s the link between balance and mental health?
Depression, anxiety and schizophrenia worsen our balance because they affect our posture and change the way we walk. Even though these changes are subtle, they are enough to make us less steady on our feet and increase the risk of falling. The reason for this is that a region of the brain called the cerebellum plays a role in both controlling movement and fine-tuning our thoughts and emotions. Many doctors advocate that improving physical balance may also improve mental health because we’re strengthening a part of the brain involved in both balance and emotional regulation.
Julie: I like it — improve your balance to improve your mental health. So do you have any health hacks for improving our balance?
- Practise standing on one leg with your eyes closed for at least 30 seconds. Try that for a Christmas party trick!
- Pick up a pen or marble between your toes
- Go barefoot whenever you’re at home
- Go barefoot outdoors if it’s safe — watch out for prickly weeds!
- Walk heel to toe along a line on the floor
- Rock back and forward between your heels and toes to strengthen your foot muscles
- Do calf raises – three sets of 10 throughout the day
- The UK National Health Service recommends practising walking sideways, crossing your feet as you do so
- Tai chi – especially outdoors
- Balance on beams or logs
- Slalom walks on stable and uneven surfaces
- Practise standing on a wobble board
Working on balance is especially important for women after menopause and people who have Parkinson’s disease. Knowing you have better balance reduces the fear of falling which actually reduces falling!
A WORD OF WARNING
If you’re exerting effort trying to balance — eg on a beam or standing on one leg — you’ll do worse if you simultaneously try to do cognitive tasks like mental arithmetic. Conversely, if you’re asked to do something mentally challenging, it’s harder to balance at the same time.
Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone who needs to improve their balance or their mental health.