How’s my what now?
Proprioception: The sense of knowing where the body is in relation to it’s various segments and the external environment.
Um, could you use that in a sentence?
Commonly known as the sixth sense, proprioception is the ability of the central nervous system to communicate and coordinate parts of the body with each other.
Riigghhttt, why do I care about this?
Now we’re talkin’. Proprioception is important because without it you would not be able to drive a car without looking at your hands to monitor their position on the steering wheel and that would be a problem, right? Proprioception is what allows you to talk on your cell phone, eat a bag of chips and walk down a flight of stairs all while looking around to make sure you’re going the right direction and don’t crash into anything. When you close your eyes and touch your finger to your nose, this too is proprioception. With relation to sports and fitness, sprains that are common to highly trained athletes often have nothing to do with strength, flexibility or endurance but rather have to do with proprioception, or lack there of, to be exact. For example, if a runner fails to make adjustments for uneven terrain, they come down too hard on one foot and sprain their ankle. If you’ve ever been walking and stepped off a sneaky invisible curb, you know what I mean.
For the fitness pros in the room, this type of kinesthetic awareness comes from structures called proprioceptors, which are receptors located in the skin, in and around the joints and muscles, and in the inner ear. Cutaneous receptors are located in the skin and send sensory information regarding pressure, touch and movement of the hairs on the skin. Joint receptors are located in the joint capsules and surrounding ligaments. They transmit sensory information relating to positions, velocities, and accelerations occurring at the joints. In addition, pressure receptors within the joints provide added information about pressure changes that is used for important postural adjustments and normal gait.
The topic of proprioception interests me because of the implications it has in day to day life.
For example, I see it in action in my PiYo classes. Most beginning students struggle to keep their balance during the flowing sequences when the center of gravity is constantly being adjusted. Some struggle even to stand on one foot in a stationary position. The interesting part is that, with practice, proprioception can be improved upon and maintained. I see dedicated students make rapid progress in this area all the time.
What could better balance and coordination mean for you? Well, it could mean not spilling your drink on the dance floor or it could mean not slipping in the shower and breaking a hip. It could be the difference between tripping on the stairs and recovering or tumbling to the bottom. Coordination and balance are skills essential to any physical activity.
Here are a couple of simple ways to test your own proprioception.
Raise both hands above your head and close your eyes. Keep the fingers of the left hand totally still (no moving!). With your right hand, quickly touch your index fingertip to your nose, then raise your hand back up and with the same finger, touch the tip of your left thumb. Continue this exercise, rotating though all the fingers on the left hand, and then switch sides.
On a lined sheet of notebook paper write the word “proprioception”. Any word will do, actually. Then, place your hand on the next line down, close your eyes and write the same word again. Do they look the same?
On the first exercise, you may find that unless you wiggle your fingers, it is quite difficult to automatically locate your fingertips. I found that, even though I could not see my hands because they were over my head, it was much easier to find my fingertips with my eyes open. I suspect this is because most of us are highly dependent on visual cues even if it doesn’t seem like there are any. You may find that, with repeated trials, this exercise gets easier.
Almost everyone does well on the handwriting test and this is because most people are used to the “feel” of writing provided by proprioceptors in our hands and fingers and do not rely heavily on visual cues for the reproduction of written words.