Thanks to our friend Chris Highcock of http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.com and the author of one of our favorite ebooks, Hill Fit (about strength training for walking and hiking… and running, too) for pointing us to this great study:
The gist of the study: by stimulating the feet of “older fallers” with textured insoles (I think with something like a “reflexology” insert), they got an immediate effect of a slower and more cautious gait.
What does this have to do with barefoot walking and running?
One of the premises touted by those of us who are fond of barefoot living is that our feet are designed to be used, to be stimulated by surfaces, to send information to our spinal cord and to our brain, to Feel The World™!
This study suggests that when you give the feet stimulation — feet that have, for years, or decades, been made numb in smooth insoled, padded shoes — your brain and body work better. In this case, elderly people who are prone to falling change their gait in a way that should lead to fewer falls. And fewer falls means fewer broken bones. And fewer broken bones (especially hips) can mean a longer life for some of these people… people who, some day, we will be.
I talked with Dr. Michael Merzenich about this last year. Dr. Merzenich is featured in the book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and PBS puts him on-air when they want to raise money.
In our conversation, Dr. Merzenich and I discussed the brain’s “map” of the body. Think of your hand for a moment. In the “brain map” for the hand there’s a separate area for each finger. And, not surprisingly, the part of the brain-map for your first finger is next to the part of the map for your second finger… and so on down the line. Each finger’s section of the map is “differentiated” from the next.
If you taped your first two fingers together, after a while your brain-map would change. The sections for the first and second finger would essentially merge. The brain-map for those two fingers would de-differentiate.
At that point, you would experience your two fingers as one slightly bigger finger.
Well, Dr. Merzenich thinks that the same thing happens to the brain map for your feet. Over time, and after wearing shoes that, basically, “tape” your foot together, not allowing it to move with the full flexibility it normally has, not feeling all the different sensations it was built to feel, your brain-map for your foot de-differentiates.
At that point, from your brain’s perspective, you don’t have 5 flexible toes on a strong, flexible arch. You have a paddle.
And it’s hard to balance a paddle.
So, Dr. Merzenich and I outlined a number of experiments that could show how taking elderly people, and getting them out of their support shoes and off their walkers, might demonstrate how their brain map RE-differentiates, turning the paddle back into a foot, and allowing them to walk with more stability and balance.
The study hasn’t been done yet. But we hope it will soon.
Thinking of the issue of elderly people’s balancing problems being due to de-differentiated brain maps also removes some of the mystery of certain studies about Tai Chi’s value for the elderly.
A number of studies (I’m too lazy at the moment to look them up, let alone read them and determine whether they were well done… let’s assume they were) show how Tai Chi helps elderly people regain their balance.
It may be that the effects have nothing to do with Tai Chi, per se, but with being barefoot and USING your feet. That is, the elderly people in the study may have gotten the same effect if they went for a barefoot walk in the park. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Tai Chi — I did it and taught it for years. But in this case, it may be extraneous.
Similarly, there’s a study by Dr. Kirk Erikson where he found that elderly people who walked retained more brain mass over 9 years than those who didn’t walk. He thinks that the added brain stimulation that came from walking is what led to the “use it or lose it” results he got. I suggested to him that if he had a third group — who walked barefoot — they probably would have kept even more gray matter.
Sadly, he doesn’t have the funding or another 9 years to test that theory, but he suspects I could be right.
Maybe the barefoot trend will take a sharp detour and become more about healthy aging than about running, walking and hiking.