Balance and Proprioception

“Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about your next step. Proprioception allows you to walk without consciously thinking about where to place your foot next. It lets you touch your elbow with your eyes closed.” (WebMed)

Have you ever had the experience, maybe at a wedding, where you go to pick up a champagne flute for a toast and realize too late that it’s plastic and not glass? Your body assuming the flute is glass lifts with a certain force, which is a little too much if the flute is made of much lighter plastic. All of sudden you feel like you’re throwing the glass up to the ceiling, which always makes me chuckle (like the glass played a practical joke on me). What’s happening kinesthetically is that your proprioceptors are miscalculating the needed force for a habitual action.

Proprioceptors are throughout our body and the ones we’re most interested in from a movement perspective are the proprioceptors in the joints that help us coordinate movement, orient in space and to respond, for example, instantaneously as we step onto an uneven surface. Proprioceptors are essential to our physical balance.

What are proprioceptors?

Foot proprioceptor feedback loop – McEntire Pilates

Proprioceptors are “mechanoreceptors [that] detect stimuli such as touch, pressure, vibration, and sound from the external and internal environments. They contain primary sensory neurons that respond to changes in mechanical displacement, usually in a localized region at the tip of a sensory dendrite.” These sensory receptors, “receptors for self” give detailed and continuous information about the position of the limbs and other body parts in space. (WebMD, Brittanica.com)

Certain conditions osteoarthritis, certain neurological conditions, and injuries can affect proprioception and we just tend to lose proprioceptors as we age. And so while strong muscles are important, stimulating our bones to maintain healthy bone density is important, we have to practice proprioception to prevent falls and maintain balance.

How do we build balance and proprioception?

I draw on Zeina Grifoni’s (Synergy Pilates of San Rafael) expertise constantly. I have taken her Pilates Rehabilitation classes for years and what I’ve learned from her is that the best way to build proprioception is to push to failure. This means if you’re doing a balance exercise and you’re not wobbling you’re not building proprioceptors. It means that we build balance by moving through unbalance. In the video below Zeina talks about three components to balance – posture/alignment, reaction time, and proprioception. We will be exploring these components this month in our Moving Medicine Classes.

“Why do we lose balance and what can we do about it?”

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