In physical therapy school I was taught that a young adult should be able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds with their eyes closed. I assumed this number was derived from a large study measuring the average balance time from a large number of individuals but I never took the time to look it up.
One day a patient of mine challenged the 30 second standard and so I looked it up. The best study I found was published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical therapy by lead author Barbara Spriger PT,PhD,OCS,SCS titled Normative Values for the Unipedal Stance Test with Eyes Open and Closed. This study tested single leg balance in 549 people at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. The subjects were recruited by a flyer posted in the waiting room. Subjects were excluded if they had any known history of balance impairment, were pregnant, had a lower extremity or lumbosacral condition requiring medical care or peripheral neuropathy.
-Cross the arms over the chest
-Focus on a spot on the wall in front of you at eye level for eyes open testing
-Raise one leg such that the raised foot is near but not touching the ankle of the stance limb
-Begin the timer when the foot leaves the ground
-Stop the timer when you either 1) uncross the arms 2) move the raised foot away from the standing limb or touch it to the ground 3) Move the weight bearing foot to maintain balance
-Repeat the test the same way with eyes closed, stop the timer if you open your eyes.
-Record the best of three trials
A strong relationship was found between advancing age and declining balance. Eyes open balance stays in the 40s range until age 50 then begins to drop by about 10 seconds for each decade after 60. Eyes closed balance is a third of the duration of eyes open balance and drops by about 4 seconds each decade after age 50. The average of 15 seconds with eyes closed for 18-39 an year old surprised me, it was much less than I had been taught.
Detailed results are below, see how you compare.
Postural Control and Single Leg Stance Balance
The springer study strictly measured the length of time the subjects were able to stand on one leg. Many people who study the musculoskeletal system contend that the way you stand on one leg is important as well. One example of this is Johan Tidstrand and Eva Harneij’s study in 2009 on the “inter-rater reliability of three standardized functional tests in patients with low back pain” where they graded the amount one leans over when standing on one leg. More lean suggests more lumbo-pelvic instability. Their study found it was a reliable test, it remains to be proven how well this test can predict outcomes or direct treatment effectively.
How to Improve Single Leg Stance Balance
The simplest and most straightforward way to improve your single leg balance is to practice standing on one leg. Getting in the habit of practicing while you brush your teeth each day is a good way to start. Follow the guidelines I have written below to ensure that your improvements in single leg balance come with the best possible demonstration of posture. The photo is from the Tidstrand study.