Proprioception is the subconscious awareness of your body’s position in space. It is referred to as your sixth sense. It keeps you upright and stable despite changing circumstances like slippery or moving surfaces. It is proprioception that saves you if you trip. A simple example of proprioception is walking up stairs without needing to look down at your foot placement. This is possible because subconsciously you know where your feet are positioned in space. Proprioception is also critical to your ability to play sport – like kicking a football or catching a basketball. Watching a child learning to kick a ball is watching a human develop proprioception.
The bottom line is that you need good proprioception for good balance and stability, to move well, apply strength effectively, and to remain free from injury or pain.
A sedentary, inactive lifestyle leads to loss of proprioception. As you lose your sixth sense you also lose coordination, your reflex times slow, your muscle activation patterns deteriorate and you gradually turn to putty.
The human body adapts to inactivity by atrophying – it is a survival response. In nature the only reason you would be inactive is because there is no food, so your body atrophies to reduce calorie demand. Proprioception is victim to this process, but it also suffers simply from lack of practise.
Proprioception is also lost to injury, for example a sprained ankle, knee damage or perhaps a surgical procedure. If you’ve ever had to prefer one leg over the other for a period of time then your proprioception and activation patterns will have changed. Over time this will lead to lower back pain, or hip and knee joint pain in your ‘good’ leg, even after the original injury has healed.
The good news is that proprioception recovers pretty quickly. The human body is a great adaptor and responds to the stimulus of exercise very efficiently. As your proprioception recovers so do your muscle activation patterns (the synergistic use of muscles in movement), neural and muscle density, and reflexive speed. It feels like your lights have been turned back on when you didn’t even know it was dark.
Your feet are lush with proprioceptors – ‘sensors’ that signal your body and brain, informing your ‘subconscious’ where you are and what’s going on under your feet. So you need to do exercises that involve balance and stability. I find the Bosu ball invaluable for this. If you haven’t seen one it is a dome shaped ‘half Ball’ that rests flat on the floor with the dome at the top. An effective proprioceptive exercise is to stand on the centre of the Bosu ball on one foot with the knee bent. You will need something to hang onto! The aim is to balance on the Bosu for 3 minutes on each foot. Keeping the knee bent is important. This is difficult and most beginners feel the proverbial ‘burn’ in their leg pretty quickly. For my new clients I ask them to try this at home using a cushion instead. The instability of the Bosu ball or cushion are key to the process.
The most effective proprioceptive exercises are done standing and involve shifting weight both vertically and horizontally. A cable machine is an excellent piece of equipment for this, and I recommend bands if you don’t have access to one.
Good proprioception is vital to good physical function. It is the starting place for all exercise programs, but have you ever heard of it? There are not many Trainers who have either, but if you can find one who does it will be a great return on investment. Time to turn the lights back on!