We often talk about having five senses, but we really have more than that. For example, proprioception is the sense of where your body is in space. While that may not seem as exciting as the sense of sight, it is a critical function of the body. Without it, coordinated movement like standing and walking around would be pretty difficult, and playing sports or dancing would definitely be out of the question.
Just like you have sensory receptors all over your skin that will notice if someone pokes you, you also have proprioceptors all over your body, especially in your muscles and joints, which communicate your body’s position. For example, in a pitch black room, you can still raise a glass of water to your lips. You might not be able to detect where the glass is very well, but you will know where your hand is and where your mouth is. Together with our sense of vision, our proprioception abilities allow us to move through the world gracefully.
But sometimes we aren’t able to move gracefully. Among other things that can challenge our balance, tight muscles inhibit the information proprioceptors report to the brain in a way similar to decreasing the number of pixels in a photograph. If you find yourself falling over or stumbling more than normal, it may be because your brain is getting a blurry image of where you are.
Here are some ways to test your proprioception abilities now:
- Stand somewhere flat and level, close your eyes, and try to keep still. Stand there for a minute and notice any swaying in your body. Without constant feedback from your eyes, what information are you getting that you are standing upright?
As long as you aren’t falling over or needing to hold on to something, you can take this test to the next level:
- Stand on something uneven and perhaps a bit wobbly, like a pillow. Then close your eyes. Notice what parts move more in their effort to keep you upright.
- Stand on one leg and close your eyes. Try to keep your arms resting by your sides.
- Stand on one leg on something wobbly and close your eyes.
Any unsteadiness in your body—lurching around, wobbling ankles, waving arms, etc.—as you try to keep still indicates that your proprioceptors aren’t getting clear information. The following are some suggestions of ways to maintain and improve your proprioception so that you can move through the world with greater ease and grace:
First of all, take off your shoes. Wearing shoes is like putting a blindfold on the proprioceptors in the feet. That’s why your ankles were probably wiggling quite a lot while you tried to balance on one leg. Spending all day long with our feet inside shoes is like having them in a cast, forcing the ankle joint to take up the work of the 30+ joints of the foot. If you’ve ever broken a bone, then you know what happens to body parts that are casted: they stiffen up and become immobile. If you want better balance, you need to take the casts off your feet. Stretch and play with your toes, roll your feet on a golf ball, give yourself a foot massage. Then try the above balance tests again and see if you feel a little steadier on your feet.
Regularly exercise your proprioceptors. This can take the form of obstacle courses to walk over, such as a rope bridge, playground equipment, or a log. You can walk around a safe place, like your backyard, with your eyes closed. You can also walk in the dark. Even simply changing up your regular walking route can bring a fresh challenge to your proprioceptors so your body can’t anticipate every bump in the road.
Notice if there are things you used to do well as a child (like standing on a log, crouching, squatting, jumping, playing tag) that you stopped doing for some reason, and start doing them again (if possible) before your body forgets how. Our ability to balance doesn’t go away simply because we get old, but because we stopped asking our bodies to be able to balance.
Get a massage! Bodywork can be very effective in addressing tight muscles, stiff joints, and waking up proprioceptors. Working with a skilled massage therapist, you can restore mind-body connections, prevent injury, and gain greater fluidity in the way you move.