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Can you stand on one foot for 20 seconds? What balance says about brain health
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Greg Blass
Can you stand on one foot for 20 seconds? What balance says about brain health

Here’s one health alert that gets our attention: our ability to maintain balance when we stand and walk has much to do with our ability to think. Not only that, but our balancing — literally, for example, how well we can balance on one foot— is directly connected to our memory, our ability to solve problems, and the overall health of our brain.

This new science doesn’t stop there. It further concludes that most of us, including those of us who stay in shape, or who believe we do, suffer a glaring deficit, to wit: lack of exercise for the brain.

Convinced as we are that fitness is all about muscular strength and aerobic endurance, actually these mean little without stability and balance. In a moment, we’ll explore how to fill that deficit, but let’s consider more carefully the interesting problem of poor balance among us.

Notice what happens when we know our brain is operating “offline.” Suppose we just woke up, or we are affected by certain disease or alcohol. This is when the likelihood of falling increases dramatically. And falling to some degree is a serious threat for all of us. In fact, according to Runner’s Magazine, 13 million Americans reported being injured in a fall in 2010. For people over the age of 65, one in three falls every year, resulting in over 250,000 hip fractures and 25,000 deaths, usually from brain injuries. Treating these falls costs $34 billion a year.

Then consider a recent, wide-ranging study out of the Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan. It concluded that the inability to balance oneself on one foot for at least 20 seconds signals some degree of brain damage in otherwise healthy individuals. This comes in the form of small blood vessel damage, frequently occurring with increased age, making arteries less flexible, interfering with blood flow. High blood pressure (measuring over 140/90 mmHg – hypertension) is a major culprit.

Those who fail this simple test, the study found, had more brain changes linked to strokes and dementia than people with better balance. Another even more compelling finding: those who had difficulty with the test also scored lower on cognitive function than people who could hold the pose.

Similar studies reported in the British Medical Journal reached the same conclusions, and offered further that walking in and of itself is a major exercise in balance. And most interestingly, our ability to move through our environment is directly related to our ability to learn and remember. And when our sensory receptors in our inner ear, eyes, muscles and joints get weak signals from the controlling organ, the brain, it leads to measurable changes in our ability to balance and walk. Getting wobbly can be a life changer, or a signal of it.

These studies describe our common ability to stand on two legs as nothing short of remarkable. Our relatively unique, bipedal gift of motion takes enormous brain power to accomplish the simple act of walking. We learn that walking is a “constant state of falling,” yet we take for granted the balance required for just staying up.

So what can we do about our sense of balance; how do we maintain it, and keep it at a brain-healthy level? This new science doesn’t have all the answers for that, but that only reminds us what the very word “science” means: it comes from the Latin word “scire,” meaning “to know.” Science is simply what we know in knowledge’s true sense.

But science is confident in telling us this – the exercise we need is one that is best for the brain in the form of balance training. And this we need from an early age.

Regular walking and jogging rank very high. Practice talking while you walk – when one stops walking to be able to talk, that is a red flag that the cognitive demands of standing on your feet are overloading your brain.

Research shows that exercising in a way that taxes your coordination, agility and balance (a/k/a gross motor skills) will literally rewire the brain quite better than aerobic or strength training does alone. So let’s integrate the exercise ball, the half-ball roller, the jump rope, stability boards and the like into our routines. Try learning to juggle, tossing a ball into a basket, running obstacle courses, and the mother of balancing, yoga.

Take note as well that novelty and unpredictability, not mere repetition, are the essence of good brain exercise. Get that brain of ours to to change its wiring in response to new stimuli. That’s where games come in, where a partner’s movements make every workout different. Tennis ranks high for this, as does dancing.

This is not to downplay the value of strength training and aerobic exercise, with their helpful effect of neuron-growth in the brain’s chemistry. But with exercise that also challenges our balance and coordination, the amazing yet mysterious brain reaches a higher cognitive level. Science describes it as raising the number of synapses that connect to the neurons. We can describe it simply as keeping our brain fit and in better shape.

Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.

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