Have you ever struggled with issues like balance, posture, or maintaining proper form during exercise? Have you injured a joint, muscle, or bone and now have to deal with a tendency to reinjure that same area? If you have, you’re not alone.
I would like you to perform a simple experiment. Close your eyes and touch the tip of the pointer finger of your dominant hand to the tip of your nose. Pretty easy, right? Okay, keeping your eyes closed, now touch the tip of the pointer finger of your non-dominant hand to the tip of your nose. Probably still easy, although you might have had to focus a little more. Now, still keeping your eyes closed, touch the tips of both pointer fingers together just in front of your nose. That was probably a little more challenging, but it should still be easy. Now for the final part of the experiment. Keeping your eyes closed, touch the tips of your pointer fingers together behind your head.
All of these tasks were testing your own proprioception, or your awareness of your body and physical position within space. Proprioception is the sense that is responsible for things like balance, throwing a ball, and the ability to walk up a flight of stairs without having to look at each step. Within your muscles and tendons are sensory organs that tell the brain how much tension or pressure your tissues are experiencing, and in turn, the brain sends back the appropriate instructions telling the muscle or tendon to contract or relax as necessary in order to achieve the desired action or position in the body. This feedback loop is essential for maintaining balance and navigating our day-to-day lives. Think about the act of stepping off a sidewalk onto grass. Because of proprioception, your body automatically adjusts to the change in terrain without you having to think about adapting to the softer, uneven surface. The stronger your proprioception, the better able you are to maintain your balance, avoid falling, participate in sports, and perform exercises without risk of injury. You can sense when your body is out of alignment, or when your form during a particular movement is off, and you can make the necessary corrections. That ability to subconsciously sense the body’s position in space and maintain balance and alignment is what allows athletes to dribble a basketball across the court and make the perfect shot, or the dancer to hit their precise mark on a stage after executing a complicated series of steps. And it all comes with practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Now if you found the tasks in that first paragraph challenging, or if you’re someone who has difficulty with balance or maintaining proper form during exercise, don’t worry. Impaired proprioception is quite common, particularly among people who are primarily sedentary, as well as those who have experienced an injury. Because of postural habits and damaged tissue, the essential feedback loop may not be working quite the way it should, and you may not even be aware of it. Unfortunately, that lack of proprioception can cause major problems, such creating damage to a joint due to misalignment, or reinjuring a joint that had suffered an injury years ago. In the latter case, the initial injury often causes damage to the proprioceptors, and those proprioceptors have to be retrained in order to perform the coordinated movements that will prevent future pain and immobility. This is similar to a person with a desk job who is not even realizing that they are constantly rounding their shoulders forward, even during exercise. That rounded position puts them at risk for shoulder, back, and neck injuries because the proprioceptors needed for proper alignment have been trained by habit out of maintaining good posture.
Thankfully, there are many ways to strengthen and improve proprioception, however, it’s important to note that it takes time and practice to make the shift from a conscious to subconscious state of proprioceptive awareness. You have to consciously train (or retrain) the muscles and tendons to send the right signals and respond appropriately, and this might feel a bit awkward at first. Proper alignment sometimes feels unnatural or tiring, but with time, the muscles and proprioceptors will begin to adapt. So, if you find yourself struggling with balance or maintaining proper form, you might want to ask a fitness professional for some specific exercises you can perform to help strengthen your area or areas of weakness. This will help to prevent pain and possible injury in the future, and that will allow you to continue to stay Always in Motion.