Beyond the Five Senses

Hey out there, League! 

Growing up, you probably learned that humans have five senses: hearing, taste, touch, sight, and smell. The truth is that we have numerous types of sensory receptors in our body that lie outside of those basic five senses. In fact, we have a whole sensory system which is rarely talked about: the vestibular system. 

The vestibular system lies in our inner ear. It is responsible for ensuring we can maintain our vision while we are moving our bodies. It’s also what maintains our balance and helps us adjust our center of gravity as needed, such as when we carry a child and shift their weight around our body. It is heavily involved in our proprioceptive sense, which is how we feel our bodies in space relative to everthing around us. It’s what keeps us from walking into door frames and how we know how far to squat to land on the chair.

As humans have evolved, we’ve become so focused on our impressive brains that we’ve come to believe our senses not as important. But as I’ve said before, humans are still animals. Our senses are still still vital to our daily lives, and our sensory systems can – and should – be trained. Anyone who goes camping has likely experienced heightened senses once they are away from the modern world – you hear more, the colors seem more vibrant, food even tastes different. That is one way of training our senses. 

Exercise can be another. Part of what is happening when we exercise is that we are duplicating movements our ancestors performed for their survival. We now lead lives that don't demand the same level or intensity of physical movements. Because we aren’t lugging a buffalo leg over the mountains, we might replicate that motion by carrying a sandbag through the park. We no longer walk miles to collect water or acorns so we have to “go for a walk.”  We have to train those movements consciously because if we don’t use them, we lose them. 

The same is true for our vestibular system. We still use it in daily life, but not necessarily to the capacity it is capable of. We rarely think about the fact that walking requires balance. A portion of every stride is spent on one foot. Taking the stairs or walking across uneven ground requires balance. So does standing on tip-toes and carrying a gallon of milk in one hand. 

We always have so much to think about when it comes to our health. We have our cardio health, bone density, muscle strength, joint mobility and body flexibility. That’s not even including stress, sleep, or nutrition. It’s a lot. And now I want you to consider balance, too? It’s ironic that if we lived a life closer to what our ancestors did, we wouldn’t have to think about these things. But because we have outsourced foraging and food growing, water collecting, wood cutting, fire and shelter building, hunting and carrying food…now we have our work cut out for us in modern life. Because we still need to do all those things to stay healthy! Our ancestors certainly never worried about whether they were training balance, because they did it every day without being aware that they were doing it.  Our modern lives remove so much of our ancestral movement that we now have to think about it. Here we thought we were saving ourselves so much time by automating those processes, and it turns out now we have to make the time to replicate them to stay healthy. 

But no worries! It’s really easy to incorporate balance into your current fitness regimen just by doing a few easy things. 

* Ensure you are adding some single-leg movements to your training. Add pistols, single-leg deadlifts, Bulgarian split squat, single leg hops and so on. If you are ready to level up, try doing a pistol or single-leg deadlift while standing on Stoic or on a couch pillow. It can be a good idea to do it near a wall so you have something to grab if you fall.

* Yoga is a great way to add some single leg moves to your day. Throw in some Half Moon, Tree, Warrior III, and Eagle poses while you chat on the phone, wait for your coffee to brew, or while you watch tv. 

* Stand on a yoga block while you work or cook dinner. When I am standing for work, I keep a Stoic surface, a massage ball, and two yoga blocks at my feet. One of them is a shorter foam one that I use to do calf and ankle stretches. The other is a larger cork block that I use for balance. I stand on one leg and do “mini-pistols” then I flip it to the side for some added challenge. I use it for pelvic list exercises. In addition to practing balance, moving around while you work at a standing desk is much better for you than just…standing. Standing in the same position for hours isn’t much better than sitting for hours. The key is you need to be moving frequently. Keeping a little “gym” underfoot means I don’t have to think about it much. 

* When you spend time in the wild, look for opportunities! Balance across a log or a tree root on the ground. Walk the edges of your paver stones on your patio. Use the kids balance beam at the park. Hop on a few rocks to cross the muddy trail section rather than going around it. 

* We often recommend taking the stairs whenever possible. You can use them to level up your balance game as well. Take them two at a time. Take them in ultra-slow motion. Do a few pistols or calf raises when you get to the bottom. 

As we get older, balance is vital to keeping our independence and our health. Falls are the number one cause of injury in people over 65. For all age groups, falls are the 3rd leading cause of injury and death. Training balance along with strength can help you avoid some of those falls. Take the rugged path. Walk on uneven ground. Use the stairs. Stand on one leg sometimes. It’s simple, but it’s important. 

Stay wild out there!

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