Hiking the sense to new awareness

Devon McGregor, National Post · Jan. 13, 2009 | Last Updated: Jan. 13, 2009 7:01 PM ET

A client recently gave me an article to read from the National Post entitled “Life Can Be A Real Balancing Act.” It’s a story about a person who is always bumping into things, losing balance and causing all kinds of bodily harm to themselves.

My client had given me the story to read after returning from a hiking trip to Sedona, Ariz. She described to me the tricky terrain — made uneven by the red rocks and dirt — that she had covered. Thrilled that she had not fallen or lost her balance, even once, she explained that the sense of security she felt was due to her training program. Working on her balance had allowed her to enjoy the hike, the company she was in and the extraordinary vistas she encountered in Arizona. 

But for many, the scenes from the aforementioned article — of falling in a bathtub at a brother’s cottage or missing a set of stairs with a grandson in their arms — have become more common, especially for the elderly and those approaching old age. Many of us have come to expect phone calls regarding parents or elderly family members who have fallen, broken hips or other body parts or even worse. But what is really at the root of these problems? And what can we do to counteract the loss of balance that comes with ageing?

I agree with experts who believe that a loss of hearing as we age is a prime contributor to loss of balance. A section of the inner ear, known as the labyrinth, aids in regulating our equilibrium. The labyrinth has three fluid-filled channels that contain hair-like sensors. As the fluid shifts, our brain detects that our head is moving and in which direction. Other parts of the inner ear help detect gravity and back-and-forth motion. A little known fact: Most non-mammals — including birds and fish — are capable of regenerating hearing and balance cells of the inner ear throughout their lives, but mammals stop growing these cells while still in the womb and are unable to grow new ones.

While decluttering your home and regular eye exams are both sound and fitting advice, neither offers suggestions that will help people with poor balance navigate through snow and ice or manoeuvre down a set of stairs with grandchildren. It’s one thing to limit obstacles, but there are other strategies to avoid falls and steady the body.

My clients and I, no matter their age or gender, spend a fair amount of time working on their proprioception — a mouthful of a word, but it’s also a key to good balance.

Proprioception is derived from the Latin term proprius, meaning “one’s own,” and perception, and is one of the approximately 21 human senses. Proprioception is our awareness of where our limbs are in space. It’s what police officers are testing when they pull us over and question our sobriety. Without proprioception, we’d need to consciously watch our feet to make sure that we stayed upright while walking. You can see why some people with poor proprioception can lose their balance.

Unlike balance, however, proprioception does not come from any specific organ; it originates from the nervous system as a whole. Its direction comes from sensory receptors or nerves found inside the body rather than on the surface. Without this sense, we would need to stare at our hands while we drove or our feet while we hiked. 

Proprioception can be improved through specific training, which is how my client was able to enjoy her hike through Sedona. 

We learn or understand any new motor skill by training our proprioceptive sense. Often overlooked because it is so automatic that our conscious mind barely notices it, proprioception is nonetheless known to be a distinct sense — a fact gleaned from instances where the proprioceptive ability is absent, either due to illness or ageing.

Some exercise tips for improving your sense of your body in space

1. One-leg balances Stand on your left foot with relaxed, upright posture and with your right leg flexed at the knee so that the right foot is off the floor or ground. Your left, weight-bearing leg should be lightly flexed at the knee, hip and ankle, as they would be when your left foot is on the ground while running. Simply hold this position for one minute, rest for 10 to 20 seconds, and then repeat twice more. After a brief rest, complete three similar reps with your right leg as the weight-bearing limb.

2. Forward-backward leg swings with knee flexed Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg. Begin by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height, with your right knee flexed to approximately 90 degrees. Perform this action reasonably quickly so your leg ‘swings up’ to this top position. Continue by swinging your right leg downwards until it is extended behind your body. Your right knee should be completely extended at the end of this backswing. Once you have reached full extension, drive your right leg forward, flexing your right knee as you do so, until your right thigh is once again in front of you and parallel with the floor. Repeat this action 30 times while gradually increasing the speed and range of motion of the movement. Rest briefly, and then repeat 30 more times with your right leg. Make sure you are sustaining a relaxed posture, with your upper body upright and your gaze directed ahead of you, not at your feet. You should try to achieve the same posture you would utilize during running. If you lose balance and must touch down with your right foot momentarily, relax, support body weight on your left leg again, and resume the exercise. Finally, be sure to co-ordinate arm activity with your leg swings. That is, as your right leg swings forward and up, your left arm should also swing ahead, as it would do during running. As your right leg moves backward, your left arm also retreats. Once you have completed two sets of 30 reps with your right leg, carry out the same movements with your left leg.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin