Vibrating insoles, bare feet, and balance

The Wall Street Journal online published an article describing the research of James Collins from Harvard. James wondered why people get less steady on their feet as they get older.

His conclusion: They get less feedback from the ground and lose the ability to balance.

So far so good.

His solution: An insole that provides random vibration to stimulate the nerves in the feet.

Can anyone here think of another way of doing the same thing, but without all the electronic bells and whistles? Anyone? Beuler? Beuler?

If you said, “Take off your shoes!” you win any prize on the second row!

If you said “Take off your shoes! And if you don’t want to step on unpleasant things, wear Invisible Shoes!” you get a prize from the TOP row! 😉

I discussed this idea with Dr. Michael Merzinich last year. He, too, thinks that the continued lack of sensation that comes from wearing shoes — especially the big orthopedic shoes they put on elderly people who can’t balance! — results in the brain map of your feet “de-differentiating.” In other words, your brain thinks you have a big paddle at the end of your foot, rather than a highly flexible and strong appendage.

And it’s hard to balance a paddle.

If you think about this, it sheds light on another bit of research on balance and the elderly: Studies have shown that Tai Chi can help elderly people regain their balance. But it’s probably not the Tai Chi that’s causing the effect (BTW, I have nothing against Tai Chi… I did it and taught it for years). It’s the time spent barefoot, FEELING the ground.

I hope that someone does a study with Invisible Shoes and balance sometime. I’d place a bet on the outcome.

  • Randy Kreill., Beavercreek OH

    The more I run with “necked” feet and in my “huaraches”, the more “hypersensitive” my feet get. Of course this affects how muscles react clear up into my upper body. Of course, most time is spent either in barefeet or minimalist as well.

    Knock on wood, but I tend to bash my toes painfully into objects less and less frequently.

    So far, just in organized races this year alone, I’ve used the huaraches in a marathon, two 50K trail races, and 38 miles into a 50 miler attempt. Not a scratch on my toes or feet, while I’ve seen quite a number of people, prone to “shuffle/run” in their shoes, take tumbles on the more technical trail races.

    There’s more going on the luck. While focused on the trail ahead, my formerly dumb feet are doing a nice job “dancing” around and gently over obstacles. While slower in generaly, so much better for the whole body, I’m guessing.

    More sensing of the terrain and the fact that huarches gently prompt the runner to properly pick up feet with every step. How many steps per mile do we take at 180 “taps” per minute?

    That adds up fast.

    One other note, during our heatwave, the weather folks suggested everyone wear sandals. Why? Simply because roughly 25% of our sweat glands are allegedly in our feet. Be cooler, literally in those huaraches while developing some hypersensitivity.

    Happy July 4th.

    Randy

    • Biomedical Researcher

      While lack of sensation in the feet*may* come from wearing shoes, it’s a pretty well studied fact that sensation in other regions of the body also degrades with age – such as fingertips, palm, etc. So, vibrating insoles IS a worthy solution. Look at some of the journal articles about stochastic resonance and James Collins. It’s far from a gimmick to make money. The technology has many other therapeutic application. So I advice you all to be slower to scoff at science…

      • I don’t scoff at science. I scoff at bad or misleading science. While you’re correct that it MAY be worth looking at vibrating insoles, good science would test ALTERNATIVES in order to find the actual causative factors. And I’m just willing to bet that merely USING your feet would deliver the same benefits (or more) than vibrating insoles would.

  • Robert Sweetman

    Science – yet again coming up with solutions to problems we created through… wait for it… Science! Hooray! 😉

    This is similar to the urban myth regarding NASA pouring $1million into coming up with the ‘space pen’ that could write in zero gravity and the Russians?…

    They took pencils…

    • Steven

      I’m just glad you know that the pen/pencil thing is a myth 😉

  • JC

    The problem wasn’t created by science. It was created by Nike investors and marketers, not science. Same with this solution… you can make more money by telling people they need vibrating insoles. You can’t make money by telling people to take their shoes off.

    By the way, Steven, any possibility of white or off-white Xeroshoe soles? The black ones get hotter than hell when they are sitting in the high summer sun. I would definitely purchase another pair for the summer.

  • Steven,

    Have you seen this, posted by our Australian Naked Runners friends in their blog:
    http://www.thenakedrunners.com/blog/2012/6/10/exercise-is-medicine-why-you-must-watch-this-video.html

    There is a doctor in Australia that studies balance exercises. And he tells patients to go barefoot (at least during the study).