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What is balance? What is proprioception? Are they related?
Let’s start with standard definitions.
Proprioception, from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual”, and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.
(my note: this term seems to have come to use first in the early 1900s)
Balance: (noun) 1. an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
Using these definitions, you could say one uses proprioception to maintain balance. But you use proprioception for more than balancing. Balance is what we usually think of as not falling down; staying upright. I’ll address the second definition of balance in a separate post.
Let’s look at a master of proprioception: Soetkin cat, who happens to be one of my favourite movement teachers. Soetkin likes to jump onto the fence and from there onto the top of a pergola that spans the length of our city yard, to the top of the garage from which she can watch birds in the neighbour’s tree (no, she’s never caught one, and she’s on a harness and leash). When she’s had enough, she walks down the pergola to the end, where I am suppose to stand waiting for her, and she jumps down onto my shoulders and to the ground. It’s a routine that we might go through several times a day.
The pergola is made with 2x10s running sideways, with a 2×2 (really 1.5” wide) running down the length. For some reason, she prefers to walk with one side of her body walking on the 2x2s and the other two feet have to span a gap of about 1 foot and land on the top of the regularly spaced 2x10s. She is doing different things with the right and left sides of her body, she never puts a foot wrong, and yet she does not have to look at her feet. She just knows where her feet will be. A miscalculation would mean a drop of about 8.5 feet. How would you feel walking on a board the same width as your foot, 50 feet in the air (relatively)? Would you be as casual?
I’ve also seen her leap onto a counter, table or ledge without really knowing what she’s going to land on until she’s over it about to descend. She needs to calculate the height from which to suspend herself momentarily to make a split second decision as to where to place the feet coming down. If she were to leap extra high, she’d come down with more force (using more energy than necessary too). So she’s also a mathematician/physicist.
Here’s a little experiment you can try:
First, stand on both feet as you would stand in a bank or grocery store line for example. Close your eyes for a moment and see if you can stand as well with your eyes closed as when they were open (if you need to, place yourself close to a wall so you can reach out and gain some awareness as to where you are in space). You’ll probably have your feet wide and turned out like the photo on the left below.
Now, bring your feet under your hips (not too wide) and pointing straight ahead. Standing like this, close your eyes (photo right below). Not the same is it?
Most people stand with their feet turned out to increase their base and make balancing easier, but ironically, the hip muscles that help you be aware what the hips joints are doing are not in the right plane of action. When you turn your feet to straight, it feels like you are balancing on something thinner (like standing on a 2×4) because the lateral hip muscles are weak and not efficient at providing support and feedback. Standing and walking with the feet straighter will help you develop more strength and support in the lateral hip musculature, eventually improving balance and allowing the foot-to-hip joints more options to make sudden necessary adjustments to accommodate surface irregularities.
Walking along the street, can you continue walking straight while looking at something to the right or left? Or do you veer? (Don’t try this while driving unless you pass this test first.) If you have a curb to walk on, can you walk along the curb without looking at your feet? How does that change your gait (speed, balance)?
I’ve noticed a lot of older (and not so older) people need or tend to look at their feet when they walk, or slightly in front of their feet, because they cannot trust their feet to deal with a surface that’s not a surface they are expecting. They aren’t even jumping and landing like my cat, they are simply walking on level ground and yet they need to prepare for the next few steps they will be taking.
If that person would like to look around, they need to stop walking, stand still and then look around. That is an indication of a loss of proprioception that leads to decreased ability to balance. That person is essentially afraid that if they aren’t prepared for each step, they may fall.
The exercises above with the eyes closed are so challenging because we rely so much on our visual sense to see (literally) where we are in space, in lieu of using the proprioception system.
I’ll be expanding on this in the next blog.
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