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You knock over a glass of wine. You tumble trying to put on leggings. You trip up the stairs. Sound familiar? You probably have a clumsy streak. (Jennifer Lawrence, we’re looking at you.) But the good news is you don’t have to resign yourself to a life full of of bruises and stains.
Clumsiness is related to a few different factors, including your reaction time, processing speed, and level of concentration, explains Charles “Buz” Swanik, PhD, director of biomechanics and movement science at the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences. When life gets in the way of those functions—think too little sleep and too much stress, for starters—it can throw you off balance, literally.
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to make yourself less prone to mishaps: “We have enough evidence within psychology, neuroscience, and biomechanics research to know that people can definitely make changes and prevent accidents before they happen,” Swanik says. Below, he suggests seven ways control your inner klutz.
Know when to take a breather
A little bit of stress can be a good thing, Swanik says. “It does help you concentrate, and focus, and increase your situational awareness.” But excessive amounts of stress can slow down your processing, and even affect your peripheral vision. “You don’t know where to look, or what to attend to that may be unsafe,” he says. “You may over-focus on whatever is stressing you out and avoid seeing potential danger.”
The catch-22? Your favorite way to clear your mind may actually set you up for an accident, Swanik says. If you de-stress by going for a run, for example, consider doing a few minutes of meditation or deep breathing first—so by the time you hit the pavement you're more alert, and don't risk getting hurt.
"It's funny, because the tradition is to get athletes all psyched up before a big game, but that's actually probably the last thing we should be doing," Swanik says. "We should be trying to keep them calm and anxiety-free. They probably would think much better and be smarter on their feet."
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Train your brain
Swanik's research has suggested that people with not-so-great memories, and slower reaction times and processing speeds tend to have more coordination problems than folks with more efficient cognitive functioning. Fortunately, there are apps for that: Swanik recommends doing a Google or app search for "brain games." You'll find many options designed to improve memory and reaction time, he says. "[These apps] can help people foster some change."
Build up your core
Several studies on collegiate athletes have found that having less core control may increase the risk of lower extremity strains and sprains, says Swanik. And research on older adults suggests core strength can help prevent injuries: “When you put senior citizens on a core strengthening program, they usually have fewer falls," he says. "Your core is the center of everything." Try adding plank variations and moves like superman and bird-dog to your regular exercise routine.
That’s because accidents happen fast. Like, really fast. “We probably only have a quarter or a tenth of a second where a person makes a mental mistake and has some kind of injury,” he explains.
If you're feeling especially clumsy, make an effort to be extra-aware of your actions: Standing up from your seat? Check to see if there's anything you might knock over on your way up. About to climb stairs in high heels? Slow your pace and watch your footing. “Even if it’s just crossing the street, you should be actively thinking, Is this a good time to send a text message?” Swanik says.
Do one thing at a time, simple as that. "Once you start to multitask, you get into a more dynamic and complex environment," he explains, "and it’s increasingly difficult to be deliberate [over] any one thing that you’re doing."
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Be patient when you're trying something new
You know those stories about amazing athletes who join a game of beach volleyball, or start fooling around on a skateboard, and end up blowing out an ankle or knee? Clumsiness is often the result of diving into a brand new activity too quickly, Swanik says. "From a motor control standpoint, if you plan to try something that requires a new set of skills, you really need to be extremely patient," he says. "Think of it as a novel environment, an unfamiliar situation where you need to really slow down and assess how your skills parallel whatever it is you're doing.”
Swanik has seen this in research on collegiate athletes who are starting a cross-training regimen. "Some athletes will be unable to negotiate the new task physically and mentally, and they have coordination problems, and boom, injury."
The takeaway: If you're a a die-hard runner about to hop on a spin bike for the first time, ease your way into the new workout, and recognize that the movements may not be what your body is used to.
Get more sleep
Though never easy, clocking more shut-eye is a no-brainer: “We know that even losing a few hours of sleep is almost like drinking alcohol," Swanik says. "The effects are so profound and fast and deleterious that I would really caution people to make sure they’re getting enough sleep to avoid any sort of accident, whether it’s just being groggy while sipping coffee and spilling it, or something much worse.”
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