AW promotion: Loss of balance is a side effect of ageing – even among athletes. A major new study is being launched to find the best way to preserve it and you can take part

Years of training will have many pay-offs for your long-term wellbeing, including cardiovascular health, muscle strength, bone mineral density and metabolic health that is far superior to that of the general population.

However, even the fittest and fastest masters athletes are apparently not immune to one side-effect of ageing that can negatively impact performance and lifestyle: a loss of balance.

In studies funded by the European Union and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), a team of researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) found that supreme levels of fitness and physical function were displayed in members of the British Masters Athletics Federation whose ages ranged from 35 to 90.

In some cases, their health parameters were similar to someone 30 years younger. However, Jamie McPhee, professor of musculoskeletal physiology and one of the researchers, says that when it came to tests of balance – which include the ability to stand on one leg, eyes closed – the older athletes achieved no higher score than sedentary people of the same age.

Balance matters not just for performance, but for longevity. According to NHS statistics, falls are among the major causes of debilitating injury as we age with one third of people over the age of 60 and around half of those in their 80s and over falling at least once a year. In their  20s and 30s, most adults can easily stand on one leg, eyes closed, for 30 seconds or longer whereas the average 70-year-old manages only 4-5 seconds.

You might expect the muscle strength and spatial awareness of the masters athletes to offset this sort of decline, but McPhee and his colleagues showed that even highly-trained older athletes could balance for only for around seven seconds, a time that is not significantly better than for the average population.

It confirms that factors other than fitness and strength are involved in our ability to balance and a major new study by the MMU team is set to find out how athletes can maintain and improve their balance powers into later life.

In collaboration with AW, the MMU researchers are looking to recruit a panel of 10 masters athletes to participate in a trial that will help to assess balance status and stem its decline.

It is a unique opportunity that will hopefully provide ground-breaking results that will help you, and others, to develop strategies for balance improvement.

To apply to take part in this important research, please email [email protected]

Get involved

People of all ages can also help with this research by answering these three simple questions. The results from this poll will be shared with Manchester Metropolitan University.

MMU balance study

» Find further reading at journals.humankinetics.com and onlinelibrary.wiley.com