By Donovan Baldwin

We can define proprioception (I know, it took me a few tries to get it right) as a person’s perception of stimuli relating to his or her own position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition.

Proprioception came heavily into play for me at least twice in the last four weeks.

Once on a cold, rainy day in Illinois I had to step in a puddle as I was walking through a parking lot. As luck would have it, the pavement was broken and uneven at the exact spot where my foot fell, and I tumbled forward. A few days later, as I was descending a set of external stairs in the dark in Connecticut, my foot landed on the next to last step. It came down near the edge, and part of the edge had worn away. Again I tumbled forward.

Now, as they say, the rest of the story.

I am 60 years old. By all rights, at my age, I possibly should have hit the ground and broken a bone or two. What actually happened in Illinois was that I whipped my other leg forward, caught my balance, and kept on going. In Connecticut, I pushed off the stair with the ball of my foot, swung my other leg forward and jumped to the ground… and kept on going.

Actually, we all deal with proprioception several times a day. Every time we take a step, we fall forward, and proprioceptive awareness tells us at each moment of the movement where we are and what we need to do about it.

However, as we age, this awareness process begins to fail for various reasons, and this is one of the reasons older people tend to fall more often. Add to this the fact that bones begin to thin out and become more brittle and… Presto! Change-o! Life suddenly becomes a lot more challenging at best and downright dangerous at worst. In fact, to make matters worse, as we become consciously or unconsciously more aware of this change, we tend to alter our lifestyles in ways that cause us to lose even more of this faculty. The very act of protecting ourselves from the presumed pitfalls of old age causes us go get out less and do less, and this lack of physical activity contributes to the deterioration. As we become more uncertain of our ability to navigate and function or become more fearful of damage to ourselves, we tend to “hole up” within our homes, and, more sadly, within ourselves.

To digress for just a moment, as I am prone to do, I used to be the Business Manager for a county mental health facility in Florida. I have always been interested in geriatrics as I felt, and seemed to be learning, that many people suffer affects of ageing to a much greater degree than necessary and condemn themselves to the very conditions they fear. My frequent conversations with Diane, the head of our geriatric program, tended to confirm this. On more than one occasion, she looked sadly around the room at people unaware of their location or the date and time or unable to take part in the program’s activities, and tell me, “Most of these people should never have wound up here! They could have done things to prevent this from happening to them.”

Over the years, I have come to agree with her… both from what I have learned, and from what I personally have experienced.

Without going into a lecture on anatomy and physiology, as we age, various components within the muscles of the body which constantly send data to the brain gradually begin to shut down or withdraw. Additionally, tissue which connects the muscles to the bone begins to thin out, lose flexibility, and also reduce the depth and condition of their links to the bone.

The simple solution to this is regular motion and load-bearing, or resistance exercises.

Not only do these types of exercise strengthen the muscles (like what I needed in my jump), and encase and protect joints (like my knees when I hit the ground), they help reestablish the faculty of proprioception. First, the system itself gets a workout that helps keep it up to speed, repairing and rejuvenating the various transmitters that keep the brain informed. Second, the muscles dig their connectors into the bone to a greater depth, protect the joint more effectively, assist the bone in becoming less brittle and more substantial, provide power for sudden movements, and also aid in providing the brain with more data, so it can figure out where every part of the body is, and what to do about it.

By the way, exercises or exercise machines that require the body to stabilize itself, for example free weights as opposed to a static exercise machine, are much more effective in producing positive affects in this area.

As you have long suspected, a fit senior citizen (or young whipper-snapper, for that matter will be better able to enjoy life at any age, be less prone to injury, and will probably simply last longer than the unimproved model.

Yes, I do resistance exercises several times a week in addition to regular aerobic activities, and that is why I was able to come through both of those events I mentioned above, AND let my six-year-old granddaughter crawl all over me and engage in roughhouse play with her and the dog without any ill affects.

Donovan Baldwin is retired from the Army after 21 years of service, has worked as an accountant, optical lab manager, restaurant manager, and instructor. He is a University of West Florida alumnus (1973) with a BA in Accounting. He has been a member of Mensa for several years, and has written and published poetry, essays, and articles on various subjects for the last 40 years. He developed an interest in health and fitness in the ’70s after reading numerous books, including Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s “Aerobics”. This has led him to continue his personal research into health and fitness for over 30 years, and to pursue course work on health and fitness. He enjoys blogging on many subjects and has a blog on fitness after 40 at http://fitness-after-40.ws

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