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How to stimulate feet for better balance


Story and photo by Luca Williams

So there I was – on the coast of Kenya hoeing corn and collecting coconuts. My friend’s great-grandmother, working beside me, said, “After we finish hoeing the field and pounding the corn to make cornmeal, I have to go visit my grandkids in another village.”

“How far away do your grandkids live?” I asked.

“It’s about 32 kilometers. I will walk as far as I can, spend the night in someone’s hut, then walk the rest of the way.”

My mouth dropped as I imagined this approximately 65-year-old woman walking 32 kilometers (about 21 miles) on dirt roads, ready to stay the night at “someone’s hut.” Oh, did I mention she was barefoot?

When I arrived in Kenya I wanted to live up to the old adage, “When in Rome,” so I shucked my shoes and went barefoot for the next five months. I only wore shoes when traveling the city or riding buses. I was young and wouldn’t do it again today, but it was a fantastic experience

Now, I don’t expect people to just give up shoes. But since Kenya, whenever I can, I throw off my shoes and feel the ground. Bare feet on carpeted ground isn’t so hard; it is the uneven and bare ground that makes this a challenge. Periodically throughout the summer, I chase my toddler down the gravel driveway, both of us slamming our bare heels onto the rocks. It’s slightly painful, no doubt, but something about being barefoot on gravel makes me feel alive.

For many of us, after years wearing shoes on flat ground, the nerves in our feet become desensitized

But this barefoot session is more than just a feeling. With each step, I remind the sensory nerves on the bottoms of my feet to wake up, thereby improving my balance.

Balancing depends on a complicated system; our brains rely on sensory information from our vision, inner ears, feet, ankles and joints to keep us upright. Most of us take our equilibrium for granted until it goes awry.

For many of us, after years wearing shoes on flat ground, the nerves in our feet become desensitized; hunching over our computers taxes our eyes and our ability to balance deteriorates. Thankfully, we can improve our balance at any age as recent studies reveal that foot stimulation can help restore balance in the elderly.

Go ahead and check your balance.

Ideally standing in front of a friend or a mirror, stand up and shift your weight onto one leg, keeping your spine straight. If it seems troublesome, just do your best.

While standing on one leg, time yourself with your eyes open. Then time yourself with your eyes closed. Switch legs. Notice which leg is easier to balance on.

Next, sit down. Massage, gently pound and generally stimulate your feet until they feel warm and tingly. Alternately, if you have some rough carpet, scuff the bottoms of your feet on the carpet until they tingle. Or go ahead and be brave like the 65-year-old Kenyan woman and walk outside on gravel – that really wakes up your feet!

After your feet feel tingly and warm, stand up and time yourself again standing on one leg, with your eyes open and closed. You are likely to discover that your balance has improved. Notice how alive you feel when the bottoms of your feet have been massaged.

You may never go barefoot outside the house like my friend’s grandmother, but simply balancing on bare feet can stimulate your feet, improve your balance and improve your posture.

Luca Williams is a certified rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts get aligned and out of pain. Website: lucasrolfing.com Blog: movingwithgravity.wordpress.com