Do you always feel like the uncoordinated one of the group?
Do you feel like you can’t do fitness movements properly, no matter how simple?
Do you feel like you frequently get injured because you’re just not coordinated?
Do you avoid trying new types of exercise because of fear that you won’t get the movements right, and you’ll look silly?
Today we’re talking about body awareness, why it’s important, and how it relates to injury prevention.
If you answered yes to any of those questions, this article is for you. And if you didn’t, there’s probably something here to help make you more amazing than you already are.
Body awareness seems to come naturally to some and not to others. Everyone is different, and that’s what makes the world go round. But if you’re sitting there thinking, yeah, right, I’m just not coordinated, and I have never been.
Hear me out. Don’t immediately give in to the frustration and default to can’t win; don’t try.
Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free people! Read the full disclaimer.
What is Body Awareness?
Body awareness is our internal ability to recognize where we are in space. It allows us to react and produce movements appropriately.
Equally important is spatial awareness, which is our ability to understand and interact within our environment. This sense helps us not walk into walls or other people in a grocery aisle. In this case, not kicking the person next to you in an exercise class.
Let’s take a simple everyday task like picking up your delicious morning coffee in that oversized mug that was an impulse buy. Not judging, we’ve all had a weak moment waiting at the checkout counter at Starbucks.
Since you haven’t had the coffee yet, you may be on autopilot in your morning fog — all the more reason to appreciate body awareness. Bonus, if you managed to walk into the kitchen without bumping into anything, you’re already winning. Thanks, spatial awareness!
You successfully stood the appropriate distance from the coffee. Extended your arm at just the right speed and precisely grasped the cup. You carefully brought it to your mouth without spilling to begin drinking your morning pick me up.
Hopefully, you managed not to spill, break the cup, or hit yourself in the face. Thanks to your successful interpretation of sensory input and the ability to react appropriately. Your body did a lot of behind the scenes work to allow that to happen.
Yeah sure, that was easy, it’s just picking up a cup. How does that relate to helping me not look like a spaz at the gym?
We’ll get there.
At some point as a child, you were not that skilled in such a simple task. Sippy cup? But you learned. Just like you learned to walk, run, play a sport, drive a car, and become more skilled at any task.
Coordinated movement requires the brain to interpret sensory information and produce the correct movements accurately.
When you do something over and over again, the brain forms motor patterns. This is referred to as “muscle memory.” A motor pattern is a sequence of muscle movements that work together to accomplish a task. A task could be as simple as standing up or as complex as a gymnast performing a high-level movement.
The more we practice something, and the better we are at understanding the sensations that are coming in, the better the outcome is.
Body awareness is essential for all exercises and can help improve form and decrease the risk of injury. (Yay!)
How does body awareness work?
Any system that can relay sensory information to the brain can contribute to body awareness. Sensory information such as visual cues, auditory cues, sense of touch, perception of movement, pressure, pain, and stretch are crucial for physical activity.
Warning: Don’t be intimidated by the vocabulary!
A quick search about body awareness will bring up the words proprioception and kinesthesia. Though often used interchangeably, they have slight differences. Let’s take a look at how these concepts assist with body awareness.
Proprioception is the ability to know where a limb is in space. Sensory receptors (proprioceptors) in muscles, tendons, joints, and fascia relay information to the brain about the position of a joint.
When your eyes are closed, you should be able to tell the difference between standing and sitting. That’s because you receive a different set of sensory information that allows you to interpret the difference.
Kinesthesia is the movement component, using feedback from proprioceptors and other means of sensory input. The kinesthetic sense plays a role in “muscle memory” and hand-eye coordination.
Your brain also receives valuable sensory cues from the visual and vestibular systems.
If you stand and close your eyes, you might notice it’s harder to keep your balance. That’s because you eliminated information from your visual system and are now relying solely on input from other systems.
The vestibular system is complex, so let’s keep it simple. Organs within the inner ears sense head position, motion, and spatial orientation. This helps with movement, posture, and equilibrium.
Anyone that’s ever had vertigo, other dizziness issues, or a few drinks knows how difficult it is to keep your balance. Take that sense away, and it’s bad news bears.
All this information gets processed in the brain to assist body awareness and movement. We are constantly processing internal and external cues to navigate through our space. If tasks are new or complex, the sensory input can become overwhelming. With practice, less mental energy is needed to complete tasks well.
Body Awareness and Proper Form
All these systems play a big role…you guessed it, executing proper form!
And proper form helps keep you from getting injured! High five!
Frequent injuries can be a result of many things. Some common causes are not listening to your body, not paying attention to what you’re doing, and not using proper form.
Getting tuned in to sensations like stretch, pressure, discomfort, movement, etc. can help you listen to your body to improve form and decrease the risk for injury.
When was the last time you weren’t multitasking? When it comes to performing different fitness movements, not paying attention can be like asking for an injury. Especially if you know coordination is not your thing.
How can you improve your body awareness?
So you’re having difficulty in that cardio step class, following the right weight lifting cues, or what the heck your yoga instructor said because you can’t see. It’s a whole lot easier to say check please and hit the treadmill instead.
But that’s not why you’re reading this article!
Don’t feel bad if it just doesn’t come naturally! If you’re willing to explore and put in some work, you can improve.
You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try.
Ask for help.
Ask instructors to show you a particular move and practice it! Depending on the situation, they may be able to provide a hands-on adjustment or offer a different verbal cue that makes sense for you.
Don’t love the instructor? Ask a different one that you know and trust!
Don’t reinforce bad form! Learn the proper way.
Remember the old saying practice makes perfect?
With practice, focus, and a little patience, you can become more proficient at different moves and decrease the risk of injury. Repetition, get that muscle memory!
As a kid, you were probably tricked into learning body awareness with games like Simon Says and Hokey Pokey. Learning now may not be as fun, but with so much information available for free, there’s no excuse. Just make sure you’re trying to seek out legit sources.
Take opportunities to really learn about what you’re doing and why. Don’t just go through the motions.
Educating yourself about anatomy and the purpose of each movement can help improve awareness.
Improve knowledge of directions and movements.
When following an instructor or reading about exercises, you will hear many different cues like flex/extend, bend/straighten, left/right, forward/back, etc.
Do you struggle with understanding verbal cues?
In a fitness class, you may not always be able to see the instructor and may need to rely more on verbal directions. Remember Hokey Pokey? That was helping us with this.
It gets more complex when an instructor is explaining cues for how to perform a movement. You don’t want to miss out on valuable tips to perform movements properly.
Take the time to learn the lingo for the class or other fitness activities you’re enjoying.
If you’re a little rusty on your knowledge of lower body anatomy, you can read about it here. Don’t be caught off guard when someone says quads or gluts!
Keep it simple and use modifications.
Always take the modification until you feel confident you can progress. If you have trouble doing two things at a time, it will be impossible to do four things at a time.
Understand what makes movements easier or harder. Use these levels to your advantage.
The more challenging an activity is, the more sensory input you receive and need to process. The more body parts you need to keep track of.
When you modify, there are fewer variables to think about, and you can focus more efficiently on the purpose of the movement. If you start simple and gradually progress, with practice, you can learn to recognize when something feels right, and when it doesn’t.
Know your limits.
If you haven’t already read my article on modifications, you can check it out here.
See a physical therapist.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I can’t do X, it hurts my whosie-whatsit.”
Further digging usually leads to improper form, not understanding the goal of the exercise or lack of proper modifications.
When corrected and educated with appropriate modifications and cues, the person could now do a safe version of X, without their whosie-whatsit hurting. And if it still hurt, we’d find a substitute exercise with the same goal because nobody likes a sore whosie-whatsit.
And don’t worry, no one has an injured whosie-whatsit, it’s not a real thing.
Take advantage of mirrors.
Some people genuinely hate looking in the mirror at themselves. Now that may be beyond the scope of what I’m getting into today, but your form is not getting better because you’re avoiding looking in the mirror.
Remember visual sensory input? Mirrors are one of the best ways to improve your form and get immediate real-time feedback.
But I’ve always been uncoordinated!
Ok. Some people are naturally more coordinated than others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve with education, practice, and focusing on what you’re doing. You can improve from where you currently are today.
Try to leave those bad memories of gym class behind. If you want to improve, you will have to put in some work.
What are some specific activities that can help improve body awareness?
Activities that focus on fundamental movement.
Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, and other fundamental movement-based methods are fitness activities that encourage more self-awareness with controlled, coordinated movements. Including these types of activities in your routine can help improve that mind-body connection by encouraging slow and purposeful movements.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase core strengthening?
Hint: it’s not sit-ups.
Pilates is also a core strengthening activity. The core is not often something we think about using and, as a result, core weakness can decrease body awareness.
Good core stability provides a stable base for all other limbs and can improve overall movement patterns.
Teaching core/postural exercises as a physical therapist is one of the most challenging concepts for patients to grasp. They often become frustrated and say, but I can’t tell if I’m doing it right.
This is where various verbal cues, hands-on cues, and education about anatomy and movement comes in. Different instructions click with different people. With practice, you gain a sense of what feels right.
Strength training exercises.
Strength training exercises (after you’ve had instruction on proper form) can improve strength, neuromuscular control, and proprioception by placing load through the system, providing additional sensory input.
Practice guided meditation.
Meditation can be intimidating to many and little woo-woo to some. I’m by no means an expert. However, science does say practicing meditation can help promote relaxation and become more attune to the sensations in your body.
Try a guided meditation for even 5-10 min. Bonus, there’s tons of free guided meditations on YouTube.
Deep breathing exercises.
Breathing, that thing we have to do all the time.
Deep breathing exercises can help improve awareness of breath and core muscles and decrease stress. Twofer!
Body scanning exercises.
This involves taking the time scanning the sensations slowly from your feet to your head, processing the sensory information coming into you such as pressure, pain, tightness.
We normally ignore these as we go throughout the day, but taking time to process this information can help improve the connection with your body and recognize negative sensations more quickly.
This article, How to Scan Your Body for Tightness, Tension, or Pain, is a great resource that expands on this topic.
Contract relax exercises.
These are typically used as relaxation techniques to release subconscious muscle tension. Voluntarily contracting and relaxing muscle groups allows you to perceive the different sensations that go with each and improve your overall body awareness.
Isometric contractions (the ability to engage a muscle group without making a movement) is also helpful for all forms of exercise as you monitor form and posture.
Work on Balance.
Working on balance and other closed chain (standing) movements can help improve proprioceptive sense. Remember, proprioception gives up feedback on where our limbs are in space.
By working on balance and fine-tuning this sense, we are able to adapt to balance changes more quickly, hopefully, stay upright and avoid injuries.
Better balance can mean the difference between a close call and an embarrassing wipeout.
Take the time to focus on what you’re doing.
Back to the coffee for just a sec, remember the last time you were distracted and tried to pick up your coffee and drink it? Some of it may have ended up on your shirt.
You’ll become more proficient at something if you can focus. So don’t just go through poorly formed motions. Really pay attention.
The same principles apply when you’re doing exercises. Make sure you’re paying attention and listening to your body! Get tuned in to the sensory cues. Don’t be thinking about your grocery list.
You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try.
Improving things like body awareness can take a long time, but you can make progress. It can be a lifelong process, and no matter what your level, it’s always good to become more in tune with your body.
It turns out; you can teach an old dog new tricks if the dog wants to learn.
I hope this post encourages you to try some new forms of exercise or get better at those you’re already doing. For my beginners, I hope this takes away some of the intimidation of trying a new activity.
Featured image credit: insta_photos / bigstockphoto.com
Inácio Salles J, Velasques B, Cossich V, Nicoliche E, Ribeiro P, Vinicius Amaral M, and Motta G (2015) Strength Training and Shoulder Proprioception. Journal of Athletic Training (50)3:277-280. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-49.3.84
Mohammad WA, Pappous AS, Muthumayandi K, Sharma D (2018) The Effect of Mindfulness Meditation on Therapists’ Body-Awareness and Burnout in Different Forms of Practice. European Journal of Physiotherapy (20)4:213-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/21679169.2018.1452980
Proske U and Gandevia C (2012) The Proprioceptive Senses: Their Roles in Signaling Body Shape, Body Position and Movement, and Muscle Force. Physiological Reviews: American Journal of Physiology (92) 1651–1697. doi:10.1152/physrev.00048.2011