Missing a piece of the fitness puzzle?

Sure, I know. It’s summer. You’re taking walks every day; going to the pool with the kids and grandkids. Terrific! But that means you’re only doing one piece of the fitness program. Fitting in a yoga class here and there? Again, terrific. But that still leaves out a couple pieces. You’re hitting the ‘cardio’ with the walking and swimming; flexibility with the yoga.

But that leaves out two big pieces. Two? You thought I was going to say “one,” right? We tend to hear about the third even if we don’t do it: resistance training or doing exercises with weights or bodyweight that add muscle and strength. And if you aren’t doing this, you’re missing not just a small piece but one of the big ones, you know, those corner pieces that are so important to any puzzle. But the fourth piece doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: proprioception and balance.

Proprioception, to simplify the term, is knowing where your body is in space, being able to zig when you need to so you don’t bump into a chair, zag when you need to avoid tripping over the cat. It’s the sense of ourselves, of where our boundaries are and how we move through our surroundings. Especially if you’ve aged or if you’ve gained or lost weight–that covers pretty much all of us, huh?–you may have lost that ability. We aren’t born with it in a highly developed sense, just watch a very small child invariably head straight for the edge of the coffee table or weave into a person on the street. We develop it over time, some of us better than others. Ballet dancers and gymnasts are proprioception champs: when a gymnast heads into a back flip on the balance beam, he is pretty sure that his feet will land where he wants them to. Some of us never develop it very well: I never could learn to ride a bike because as soon as I picked up speed I felt unsure where I was and where I was heading. But all of us need to keep those skills updated.

This becomes, along with balance training–and the two go hand in hand–absolutely essential as we get older. Falls become increasingly dangerous. What was once just a chance of a bump if we take a wrong step can become a broken bone or head injury as we age. Falls are the number one reason the elderly have to move from independent living into nursing homes or assisted care. And even when a fall isn’t catastrophic, it can lead to feeling more vulnerable which in turn makes you over cautious and fear makes another fall even more likely. When you see older people walking with small shuffling steps, back slightly bent over, sometimes that’s because they feel they are “protecting” themselves. Instead, shifting their center of gravity off line and catching their feet on the ground with each step can lead to another fall.

So ask yourself how confident you feel with your body in space. How easily can you get up off the floor or out of a soft sofa without using your hands and arms or grabbing the furniture? If you had to step from rock to rock to cross a stream, would you feel confident you could do it? Are you able to stand on one leg while you brush your teeth? Or turn around quickly without bumping into things? Or correct yourself quickly if you’re bumped into in the grocery store?

Don’t leave your fitness puzzle half completed. Add in those other two pieces: resistance and proprioception. A completed puzzle equals a whole and healthier you.

Proprioception in action
Proprioception in action

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