When thinking of the human senses, you probably think of the Big Five: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. But there’s an additional human sense called proprioception that’s often excluded. It’s kind of the “odd one out” because, unlike the others, it’s generated solely by our own actions—and it’s rare we consciously even notice its presence.
Don’t underestimate it, however; proprioception actually plays a critical role in balance—which can be especially important for older adults.
Proprioception: The body’s true north
Our proprioceptive sense is our ability to detect the movement of our body and its position in space. Think of it as your body’s internal compass: It provides the “True North” we need to interpret our surroundings and coherently move within them.
Proprioception is a complex, ongoing conversation within your body. When you move, specialized nerve endings called mechanoreceptors embedded within your skin, muscles and joints send detailed messages to your brain about your body’s position and actions. In response, your brain sends instructions to the muscles to rearrange themselves to maintain the body’s balance.
Balance is a complex mix of factors. But the great news is we can improve balance indirectly by refining and amplifying our proprioceptive senses through simple, easy and enjoyable exercises.
Proprioception can improve at any age, even in those with disabilities
We can strengthen our proprioception through specific training exercises accessible to anyone, regardless of age or ability.
Dance like you mean it
According to research, dancing – especially with an emphasis on body awareness – can improve proprioception. Researchers emphasize that formal training and performance standards aren’t required to reap the proprioceptive benefits of dancing. All that’s needed is a friendly, informal and open atmosphere.
Online dance workouts like this 8-minute low-impact dance workout from Silver Sneakers make dancing convenient and fun. Or, encourage your older adult to explore “dance cardio,” also called “dance fitness,” like this 20-minute dance cardio workout for seniors. You can also find a Zumba or Jazzercise class near you.
Listen carefully to your yoga instructor: Cues build proprioception
A research review found that yoga-based exercises improve balance in older adults, likely due to the emphasis on focused attention on specific body areas during the various poses.
To facilitate this focused awareness, a yoga instructor will give numerous vocalized cues (i.e., instructions), even during the simplest poses. Maybe it’s happened to you: You’ve become befuddled while standing in Mountain Pose because your yoga instructor just directed you to “spread your toes” and “lift your arches to distribute your weight evenly.” (And you thought your only job was to stand up straight.)
Even though yoga cues might seem irrelevant – and it’s easy to dismiss them as yoga jargon – instructors strategically use cues with the sole intent to help students build proprioceptive abilities.
Rachel Land from Yoga Medicine expertly discusses this concept in more depth, and also demonstrates several easy and simple ways to alter basic yoga poses to build proprioceptive strength.
Rebounding is a type of aerobic exercise performed using a miniature trampoline. Depending on fitness level, it can include light bounces, jumps, jumping jacks, jogging in place, jumping rope and more.
Rebounding is an evidence-based way to improve proprioception. A recent study found that performing mini-trampoline exercises twice a week can significantly improve proprioception and strength.
When selecting a mini-trampoline rebounder, be sure to choose one with a circumference between 36 and 48 inches that can accommodate a minimum of 220 to 250 pounds and is supported by well-built, sturdy legs.
Play with virtual reality
The Nintendo Wii Fit Balance Board, with its integrated neural feedback software, is a fun and accessible tool to improve proprioception. Each Wii game focuses on improving balance ability and is suitable for people of all ages and abilities.
As you play the Wii games, the sensors embedded in the Wii Balance Board System create a visual display of your body’s position in space – including how your body is positioned incorrectly – on the screen in front of you. Remember, proprioceptive senses often fly beneath the radar of consciousness, but the visual information presented on the screen brings these subconscious sensations into the conscious realm. The screen shows you where your body is in space and indicates when you need to change your body position to meet the game’s ever-changing requirements.
This feedback loop enhances the neural associations between how you visually (and thus mentally) perceive yourself in space and the actual action or position paired with this specific mental perception. In essence, the balance board teaches your nervous system to associate specific movements with subsequent unique changes in balance resulting from that movement.
Walk in the sand
Everyone loves a walk on the beach, but they might be surprised to know their proprioceptive senses are hard at work while they stroll and gaze at the sunset.
Numerous studies endorse the proprioceptive benefits of walking on sand. The softness and instability of a sandy surface make it difficult for our muscles to contract normally. This forces the body to rely more on proprioceptive cues from the mechanoreceptors, thus strengthening these proprioceptive neural connections.
According to research, being barefoot – whether on sand or a solid surface – builds proprioception. As the only contact point between the body and the surface it stands on, the bottom of the foot plays a crucial role in regulating balance. Age-related reductions in the tactile sensitivity of the plantar region (bottom of the foot) impair the proprioceptive ability to detect small changes in upright posture and increase the risk of falls in older adults. Shoes compound this reduction in sensitivity because the shoe sole can mute sensation and cause sensory receptors to “misinterpret” the surface they’re standing on—leading to poor balance and even falls.
Practice walking meditation
Walking meditation is a mindfulness practice performed by walking slowly while alternating concentrated awareness on the movements of each leg and foot. Research finds that this targeted concentration improves balance ability through increased ankle proprioception.
The headspace website provides simple instructions for performing a walking meditation in various settings (e.g., parks, cities, countryside, etc.).
The bottom line is that you can strengthen your proprioceptive awareness (and that of your loved one) through simple, fun activities. Enhanced proprioception contributes to better balance, reducing fall risk and making day-to-day living easier (and safer).
Remember that any drastic change in balance or coordination warrants a discussion with a trained physical therapist or other health care providers.