“The sixth sense” isn’t just a classic late '90s M. Night Shyamalan thriller. It’s also a nickname for the mind-body connection we experience called proprioception. This term might sound foreign, but it’s at work for you right now, guiding your body awareness in everyday life, affecting everything from your balance and coordination to your posture.
What is proprioception?
Proprioception, sometimes referred to as kinesthesia, is our perception of our body’s position and movement. Coined by neurophysiologist C.S. Sherrington at the turn of the 20th century, the term “proprioception” is a combination of the latin word for “one’s own” (proprius) and reception. Essentially, paying attention to ourselves.
“This is the body's way of taking sensory information from our environment to let us know where [the different parts of our] body are positioned in space,” says physical therapist Ashley Taylor, DPT, of Coast Physical Therapy in San Diego, California.
And according to the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, “These sensations arise from signals of sensory receptors in the muscle, skin, and joints, and from central signals related to motor output.” Proprioception helps us be aware of our own limbs in relation to outside objects, control our movement through the world, and keep our bodies properly aligned.
Why proprioception matters
“From improving your reaction time and speed, to preventing injuries and improving balance, and even reducing stress, paying attention to—and finetuning—proprioception can be extremely beneficial to our bodies in a number of ways,” says Taylor.
Because proprioception can worsen as we age, we can be at higher risk for injury—think stumbling and twisting an ankle, mistakenly thwacking the edge of the table, etc. Injuries and diseases such as Parkinson’s can also hinder our proprioception.
5 ways to improve your proprioception
You’re not doomed to decline, though! “There are exercises that can improve your proprioception and strengthen your brain-body connection at any age,” says Taylor. Ahead, a few science-backed and PT-approved exercises.
Yoga-based balance poses
“Tree pose or a single-leg balancing pose is an excellent place to start,” says Taylor. “Stand on one foot and pretend somebody is pulling an imaginary string up from your stable foot—from the ground up through the crown of your head.” This will allow you to not only focus on and improve your balance, but also helps to form that acute concentration, noting how you feel and where you are in space.
Watch Lena Dunham practice tree pose with her yoga instructor Beth Cooke:
Sometimes called “earthing,” Taylor suggests awakening your physical body through some barefoot time outside. “Walk outside barefoot and feel the ground beneath you, whether it's sand or grass or pavement. Stand with both feet on the ground and get in touch with nature and yourself!” Added bonus: stress reduction.
“Lateral hops, speed-skaters, or similar types of exercise (eventually moving up to plyometrics) can help improve your general reaction time, which in turn can help prevent injuries in the knee or ankle sprains,” says Taylor. “Your body will be able to better adapt to changes in different circumstances, too, such as on uneven sand or even a slippery floor.”
Try this classic plyometric move:
Savasana with guided meditation
Whether you use an app, a YouTube video, or attend a class, taking a body-scan like you would at the end of your yoga practice is one of Taylor’s favorite ways to improve the mind-body pathway. “I personally use this type of guided relaxation to help myself tune in with each part of my body,” says Taylor. “Even just lying on my back, feeling my lungs and rib cage, this is a practice that not only can help your proprioception, but will help mitigate stress as well.”
Tai chi exercises
A recent study found that Tai Chi (an ancient Chinese tradition now often used as gentle, graceful exercise) was effective in improving proprioception in a demographic over 55 years old, citing “significantly positive effects” on the lower limb joints.
Don’t forget to visit your PT!
If you’re recovering from an injury, or have experienced a neurological change or physiological event (such as pregnancy), and you feel “off” in your proprioception, it’s always a good idea to check in with a physician or physical therapist. If you feel particularly injury-prone, having an expert in your corner can help keep you safe as you work to improve balance, perception, and reaction time.
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