The importance of good balance and proprioception when exercising......
All sports and activities involve movement in different planes of motion. Exercise involves the distribution of weight through a variety of movements such as unilateral (single arm or leg) and bilateral (2 arms or legs) exercises. If you're anything like me, you will notice that movements on one side (usually your non-dominant side) can be very awkward and lack any sort of grace! Consequently, we seem to recruit the side we know best to perform many functional activities - but what happens over time if we don't balance ourselves out?
I'll give you a first hand example - after rupturing my second ACL many years ago, I began to have lots of lower back and glute issues on the contralateral (or opposite side). Intrinsically, my body was protecting my left knee (this knee has had 2 ACL repairs and an arthroscope so it was not happy!). As I began to increase my activity, the neuromuscular pathways were very different post surgery and consequently several important muscle groups were still pretty inactive. With dormant right sided glute muscles and a damaged hamstring (my right hamstring was used as a graft) I began to have pretty bad biomechanics and more uneven movement through my pelvis. Over time, this ended up as bursitis and tendonitis in my hip which took almost a year to fully recover from! I realise now that I didn't place enough emphasis on balance work during my rehab before doing more strenuous exercise.
So what does balance and proprioception refer to?
Proprioception comes from the Latin phrase meaning "ones own" perception. It's the body's ability to sense it's location, movements and actions without consciously thinking about it. It is basically a continuous loop of feedback between receptors in your body and your nervous system. When we move, our brain detects the effort involved in our actions and accordingly responds by positioning the body. With good proprioception, we can move freely and without thought whereas abnormal proprioception can interfere with even the most simple activities. Some things to alert you to abnormal proprioception include:
Balance issues - eg having trouble standing on one foot
Uncoordinated movement - eg not being able to walk in a straight line
Clumsiness - eg dropping or bumping into things
Poor posture - such as slouching
Trouble recognising your own strength - eg not being able to gauge the force needed to pick something up
Avoiding certain movements - eg uneven surfaces because of a fear of falling
Can you relate to any of these issues? The image below shows the feedback loop between the muscle fibers and sensory receptors and the nervous system.
What are some exercises that can help balance and proprioception?
Balance exercises: a balance board or bosu ball are great apparatus to practise stability. Balance exercises can help teach your body and brain to control the position of a deficient or an injured joint.
Exercises while closing the eyes - as you get stronger and more spatially aware, try shutting your eyes while moving. This relies on more communication between the brain and the muscles.
Strengthening exercises: Exercises such as leg presses and squats can help build strength. As strength builds, it helps improve proprioception awareness with the mind and body and also allows you to continue/hold a movement or action in place far longer with proper form.
Plyometric movements and drills: Exercise involving coordination and movement patterns can greatly enhance the kinesthetic awareness. Vertical jumps, running figure-eight patterns, change of direction drills and crossover walking are other routines that help establish the connection between muscles and nerves
If you think you may have issues with balance and proprioception that are causing pain or injury, speak to an allied health professional to get a proper assessment. It can often be fixed quite easily once you are made aware of any issues. I personally find that doing Pilates and yoga has helped immensely. These classes focus on unilateral movements on both sides of the body in slow and controlled environments. I have also learnt over time to slow down my pace and concentrate on good form and core engagement when doing functional exercises. The more aware of your body and it's position during exercise, the more biomechanically sound your movements will be and the less likely you are to injure yourself. :)