Proprioception, movement, balance and grace

Proprioception is the body-brain capacity that allows us to adapt to our environment and keeps us upright. It’s a miracle of neurocognitive functioning and it’s as important for high performance athletes as it is for aging seniors…

If you’ve ever watched a baby grow and learn to touch their toes, crawl, walk and touch their nose, then you’ve observed a brain and body developing its proprioception.

And if you’ve ever been overtired, or inebriated, and you’ve become a little bit clumsy then you’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to have reduced or impaired proprioception.

And if so, then you know that it’s not just babies that can’t find their nose.

But proprioception is also the body-brain capacity that allows us to adapt to our environment and keeps us from hurting ourselves. It’s keeps us upright. It allows us to step confidently down a stairway or off a curb. And injuries all too often happen when we’re doing very small, “simple” movements.

But the truth is that movement is not ever simple. It’s incredibly sophisticated. Humans, and other animals, make movement look easy, because our brains and bodies are miracles of neurocognitive functioning. Our brains always seem to know how our joints are positioned, what angle our bodies are at, and exactly what constellation of muscle contractions need to happen to keep us upright.1

If you find yourself on the deck of a BC Ferry during a shift in angle, or during large waves, or while turning, you will see hundreds of people unconsciously and near effortlessly shift, balance, step and reach out to recover and keep themselves upright.

But as adept as we are as humans, falls still happen. In fact, falls are a leading cause of death.

“Falls are the sixth or seventh leading cause of death in [America].” – Lewis Lipsitz, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Falls are the second leading cause of accidental death worldwide. Almost half a million deaths happen every year from falls, and it’s mostly among adults, 65 and over. And when falls aren’t fatal, they can still result in injury and disability.2

This is why training and movement are an ongoing, lifelong discipline. Whether it’s walking your dog, dancing on the weekends, or taking on a sport, movement is good for your brain.

Athletes can also benefit significantly from working on their fine motor skills and proprioception. Wobble boards and wobble board exercises can help with this. And when athletes come to us with sprains, especially for ankles, and important part of the process is fine motor rehabilitation and proprioceptive work.

But it’s not just about high performance sports.

Here in Victoria, people of all ages and activity levels can seek out gentle activities like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique and juggling groups. Yoga is a Vancouver Island staple. There are lots of different dance groups, doing cool work.

There’s Judo and Capoeira for the more athletic and competitive. And there’s also Kung-fu, like Wing Chun.

And there’s a large active community of T’ai Chi practitioners. It’s good for all ages. And it’s slow and gentle and mindful and helps with proprioception significantly. Check out this video by Harvard University on their research on the effectiveness of T’ai Chi and developing balance and brain adaptiveness.

  1. Read more on proprioception.
  2. See this World Health Organization fact sheet on falls.

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Posted by Arbutus Health Team

The Arbutus Physiotherapy & Health Centre is a health and wellness clinic that provides physiotherapy, massage therapy and chiropractic care. We provide assessments and treatments to people with acute injury, chronic pain, and sports related injuries. We can help you recover and return to an active, healthy lifestyle, and peak performance.

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