Ever been in the middle of completing a task at home during the evening hours and suddenly have the power go out, leaving you blind in the dark? How did you manage to complete the task and/or find the nearest flashlight to bring your ever-important sense of vision back into the picture?
A number of incredible physiological concepts in this simple example highlight the idea of body awareness and balance. But before we explain these concepts, lets first define exactly what body awareness is and why it is critical in life and athletics (especially as we age!).
Body awareness is your overall intuitive sense of your body’s position in space. What does that mean? Try this: reach both arms straight over your head and point your index fingers towards one another. Now without looking up, try to touch the tips of your index fingers together directly over head. Can’t quite get it? It’s okay – most people cannot do it on their first try, but they can get close. Try it again.
So, how did you know (roughly) where your arms, hands and fingers were in this demonstration, even though you could not see them? You guessed it…body awareness! In this case, the little sensory receptors (also known as proprioceptors) in your skin, muscles and joint capsules were communicating with your brain to tell you where your limbs were, even though you couldn’t see them! Pretty cool, right?
Okay Magellan, back to our first example. How did you find your way around the house in the dark? Chances are you first felt around with your hands, using your sense of touch to feel walls and other objects that guided you in the right direction. You may have even sensed different surfaces underneath your feet, indicating you were entering a different room of your home. Next, you might have used your sense of hearing to listen for your kids, a pet, cars outside, or some other form of noise to guide you. And last, you undoubtedly used your proprioceptors (noted above) to tell you where your body was in space, even though you couldn’t see. There are also other systems at work in this example too, such as the vestibular system, which is an internal ear system that helps keep you upright and erect based on whether you are leaning too far in one direction.
Want to know something scary? Your overall body awareness (including your sense of vision, touch, hearing and proprioception) decreases with age! This is probably not that surprising to you, knowing that there is a direct correlation between falling injuries and age. But did you also know that there is a second contributor to this decrease in body awareness that actually accelerates the aging process AND contributes greatly to the development of disabilities? Want to guess what this hidden enemy is?
A lack of movement! That’s right. No movement (aka no exercise or physical activity) throughout your life is just as bad as, if not worse than, the physical aging process on your body’s internal balance and health systems.