Your ability to sense where your body is in space and what it is doing is sometimes called body awareness. The technical term is proprioception. Having a good special awareness and balance means you are less likely to injure yourself. Proprioception is a result of the interworking between the brain, tissues and proprioceptors.1,2 The proprioceptive system consists of unique sensors at the end of nerve endings in muscle tissue, tendons, joints and so forth. They collect information and then send it to the brain. This information tells the brain how your movement is changing, where you are in space, and what tension and forces you are experiencing.
This happens all the time. Let’s say you are walking along a rocky path. You can ‘feel’ all the holes and rocks, even tiny ones. When your foot lands in a small hole, your body adjusts without you even really thinking about it. That’s because your brain adjusts your feet as needed to keep you from injuring yourself, based on what it is told by the proprioceptors.
Some people’s receptors don’t function properly. Injury, disease and even age can cause this. Furthermore, alcohol and drugs can certainly affect them as well.3,4,5,6
Why training the proprioceptive system is important
As you can probably imagine, the proprioceptive system is especially important when it comes to sports and fitness. Think about dribbling a basketball without looking down. Now do it while running down the court, spinning and then shooting (without hurting yourself). For people that can do this, it is unconscious proprioception in action.7,8,9
It is no doubt clear that one can improve their proprioceptive ability, as can be seen as individuals improve in sports over time. In fact, even experience athletes benefit from practice, or proprioceptive training. This is because, no matter how good your skills already, training can improve your balance, reaction time, coordination and agility. These all make a big difference in your performance.
In addition, training can prevent injury. If you can move more quickly, shift your balance faster, you are less likely to get hurt. In fact, a European study shows this to be the case. Over a 6-year period, basketball players took part in regular proprioceptive training. Mind you, this was NOT baskeball practice, just exercises to improve balance, reaction speed, coordination, etc. Those who participated were 81% less likely to sprain their ankle than those who didn’t. The also missed 75.5% fewer games and practices.10 Another study shows that proprioceptive system’s acuteness has a strong relationship with athletic ability. In other words, elite athletes have superior proprioceptive sense.11
Exercises for the proprioceptive system
Everyone can benefit from exercises that can improve your proprioceptive sense, especially balance. You don’t have to be an elite athlete, or even an athlete at all. The truth is, if you aren’t an athlete, you have a greater need for proprioceptive training. Here are a few of the best exercises: