Stand on one leg, right now – with the toes of your free foot touching the heel of the fixed one. Stare straight ahead, and keep your arms by your side. How long can you manage it, without putting the other foot down?
Fewer than 10 seconds, and – if you’re a midlifer – it’s bad news. According to new research, a failure to do this doubles your likelihood of dying from any cause within the next decade.
A Brazilian study charting the balance abilities of 51-75-year-olds found that one in five people are unable to remain on each leg for this amount of time, producing results so stark, researchers concluded the test should be included in routine health checks for over-50s.
This is one of many simple methods that can quickly assess just how healthy you are. How do you fare among the below?
Standing on one leg
Dr Claudio Gil Araujo’s study in Brazil of 1,702 people enlisted participants to try the above exercise (it was then repeated on the other leg.) One hundred and twenty-three people died in the 10 years that followed – equivalent to an 84 per cent heightened risk of death, when adjustments for underlying conditions, age and sex were made.
Causation has yet to be established. However: “this rapid and objective feedback… adds useful information regarding mortality risk in middle-aged and older men and women,” the paper reports.
Five years ago, singer Cher, then 71, boasted of her ability to hold a five-minute plank. If true, that impressive score is some five times higher than the typical "good" benchmark – the move now being a common metric for physical fitness. By placing your forearms on the ground, body lifted, with weight on your toes, the core is strengthened – improving balance and back muscles, and reducing the risk of injury.
A stronger core also helps with household tasks such as gardening, DIY and cleaning - all of which require small movements that activate your middle.
Up the ante by doing a dynamic plank, suggests trainer Matt Roberts. Starting from the same position, raise one arm ahead of you, holding it straight ahead, then bring it down again, before repeating with the following arm. Then, repeat with each leg. “That’s a nice alternative way of testing out strength in the core,” he says, adding that “it’s a fairer test [of strength] than the pure passive test for lots of people.”
Standing from a seated position
The sit-and-reach test is commonly used to measure lower back and hamstring strength, as well as flexibility. It involves sitting in an armless chair, and seeing how many times you can stand, from sitting, each minute.
A study carried out by the Medical Research Council showed that participants who could do this more than 36 times within a minute were twice as likely to be alive 13 years later than those capable of repeating the movement only 23 times.
Roberts suggests that standing from a seated position on the floor - without using your hands - is a better fitness metric. A 2020 study from Okinawa, Japan - which has one of the world’s highest number of centenarians - found the movement was a strong indicator of longevity.
Another paper published in the European Journal of Cardiology asked more than 2,000 adults between 51-80 to repeat the action, finding that those who struggled were five to six times more likely to have died six years on, compared to people able to do it with ease. “Even more relevant,” the authors wrote, “is the fact that 1-point increment in the sitting-rising score was related to a 21 per cent reduction in mortality.”
Being able to hit 40 press-ups in a minute lowers heart disease risk by 96 per cent among middle-aged men, according to a 2019 study from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. For a good press-up technique, have your hands facing forwards with elbows close to your body. “The shoulders should stay directly over the hands at all times, and the body needs to be completely straight,” says Roberts.
This is measured using a hand dynamometer, held with your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, while squeezing the handle as hard as possible. The result is a strong indicator of bone mineral density - which declines with age - and heart health, mobility and cognitive function.
One study of 140,000 people found that for each 5kg drop in grip prowess, chance of death rose by 14 per cent, and heart attack risk was upped by seven per cent. To improve grip, try exercises such as a single-arm hang from an overhead bar (30 seconds is a strong start), pull-ups and press-ups.