Why Walking Barefoot Is Better For Elderly People

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:

Altering gait by way of stimulation of the plantar surface of the foot: the immediate effect of wearing textured insoles in older fallers

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?

EVERYTHING!

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.

  • Moving into the barefoot walking realm brings a question from me to you about hotspots.

    I know that with running, if you get hotspots, it means that you are doing something wrong. I’ve been able to build up my endurance (and very slightly my feet) to take 1 mile runs twice a week without issue. I analyzed my stride via video, and it appears to be great.

    But when I walk, half of my steps seem to slide the ball of my foot over the shoe (or ground when barefoot) unless I really grip the ground (I’ve found this with carpet and hard surfaces like cement) with my big toe. Is there something I’m doing wrong while walking, or should I just grip with the big toe of each foot? It seems to be generating hotspots if I go too long, although barefoot (not shod) on carpet is fine.

    Clyde

  • There should be no need to grip with your toes, Clyde. Walking should have a similar “placing/lifting” feel that running does (rather than a “pulling/pushing” feel).

    The question to ask as you walk or run is: How can I make this easier, lighter, less effortful? And experiment with your gait to see if you find something that fits the bill.

    Now, here’s the “fun” point: If only HALF your steps have this issue.. then pay attention to the OTHER half of your steps where you don’t have that issue… and do more of that!

    😉

  • Alright. Thanks! So with walking, it needs to be the same as running with placing/lifting my feet instead of placing, and then rolling off the toe(s). I’ll pay attention to that.

    Clyde

  • No, you still “roll” a bit, but don’t “scrape” or drag. And you don’t really need to “push” either.

  • Kevin

    my balance has greatly improved since started barefoot walking and wearing invisible shoes. I’ll probably use them while fishing this year even though i’ll get heckled for it. I’m terrible in boats.

  • So not *complete* toe-roll, but still a tad of roll, just a bit more than lifting a paddle! 😉 Alright. Also, I’m still a teen, so I don’t think balance is totally an issue with me, but one thing I noticed is that when I started going barefoot or minimalist as much as possible, my feet stopped slamming into things which was part of what had kept me in normal shoes anyway. I haven’t had a limp inducing foot injury since December, compared to only a week after taking my shoes off inside whenever I was lazy and didn’t wear shoes once every two months or so, although I hadn’t started “the barefoot thing” for myself yet, I’d stub my toe, or bend it to the side on something, to the point that it hurt for at least another week after moving to “paddle shoes” as you described them in this article.

    Clyde

  • Guest

    “He thinks that the added brain stimulation that came from walking is what led to the “use it or lose it” results he got. ” you will wrote everything to sell your product dont you?. He conclude in this study physical activity not “use it or lose it” do it.

    • I must be missing your point. If USING your body (that is, engaging in physical activity), is the cause of keeping gray matter, and NOT USING your body could be the cause of atrophy, that is the very definition of “use it or lose it.”

      Secondly, I make it very clear that Kirk did not study Xero Shoes but we HYPOTHESIZED that additional stimulation (which one could get by being barefoot or in Xero Shoes) might have improved the effect.

      So, the problem with proposing a reasonable hypothesis is what, exactly?

      • Guest

        cause of atrophy, that is the very definition of “use it or lose it.” no its not because its not use region responsible for this process( for example runner have temporarily decreased grey matter in area which process vision. Of course decreased grey matter don’t necessary mean bad news (sometimes lower GM means better, more efficient brain processing), but in this case authors conclude “Thus, some of the decreases of GM volume in different brain areas can be discussed under the assumption of mental underload. For example, the bilateral occipitotemporal cortex (encompassing Brodmann’s Area (BA) 18, 19, 39 and 7) are well known to serve visual and visuospatial processing [33-35]. Therefore, one might assume that daily running on streets in straight lines may impose only little needs on detailed visual processing. This assumption might be supported by vertigo imaging studies, which have repetitively shown that the parietooccipital cortex is deactivated when visual acuity is not necessary [36].http://www.biomedcentral.com/2052-1847/6/4“) “Secondly, I make it very clear that Kirk did not study Xero Shoes but we HYPOTHESIZED that additional stimulation (which one could get by being barefoot or in Xero Shoes) might have improved the effect.” so physical activity probably the same you get from swiming, and using in article with title “Why Walking Barefoot Is Better For Elderly People” is overinterpretation “they probably would have kept even more gray matter.” you wrote that you speak with Merzenich but clearly dont understand his theory in this field.

        • If Erikson’s supposition — as he reported to me in our conversation — is that USING the body was the cause of the retention of gray matter, this is definitely an example of use it (the body) or lose it (the gray matter).

          Further, of course engaging in more of OTHER physical activities might achieve the same effect. But the point of our conversation was that increased stimulation with a more stimulating variation of the SAME activity might do the same, not that, say, learning to juggle would be better/worse.

          For me to say “probably would have kept” is a HYPOTHESIS that, based on my conversation with Kirk (Merzenich and I didn’t discuss this). I’m not saying it WILL… but, again, based on Kirk’s comments to me about why he thought the walking group retained gray matter, I suggested that walking with additional sensory input might have produced better results … and we both concluded that was a reasonable hypothesis.

          • Guest

            If Erikson’s supposition — as he reported to me in our conversation — is that USING the body was the cause of the retention of gray matter, this is definitely an example of use it (the body) or lose it (the gray matter). He saying this to you but why not in this study? because he maybe dont go to peer-review?(also in 2013 study dont mention anything). ” is that USING the body was the cause of the retention of gray matter, this is definitely an example of use it (the body) or lose it (the gray matter).” Im sorry but you dont understand basic neurology, when you walk you use body but not for example brain region responsible for auditory processing or memory, I also show you that running can cause decreased grey matter use it and yet lose it, what more pain you can say is use it and yet grey matter also decrease. “Further, of course engaging in more of OTHER physical activities might achieve the same effect.” even better activity enchance plasticity but not train brain like memory training.

            “For me to say “probably would have kept” is a HYPOTHESIS that, based on my conversation with Kirk (Merzenich and I didn’t discuss this). I’m not saying it WILL… but, again, based on Kirk’s comments to me about why he thought the walking group retained gray matter, I suggested that walking with additional sensory input might have produced better results … and we both concluded that was a reasonable hypothesis.” as I say with pain you have increased sensory input and yet lower grey matter, “and we both concluded that was a reasonable hypothesis.” I wonder why Kirk say that because if he will check information then he will conclude that this is rather flawed hypothesis

          • First, I’m reporting a conversation. If you have an issue with what Kirk said to me in that conversation, so be it. I’m just reporting.

            Secondly, I’m sure you know that studies have shown physical activity can result in improvements in MANY areas of cognition, not just brain areas responsible for motion. See http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110 for a start on that thread.

            And, yes, you’re right that it’s POSSIBLE that walking with increased sensory input COULD result in lessening of gray matter… that’s why what Kirk and I discussed is a HYPOTHESIS… just like your idea is a HYPOTHESIS. There are arguments to be made in favor of each. Testing would tell.

          • Guest

            “First, I’m reporting a conversation. If you have an issue with what Kirk said to me in that conversation, so be it. I’m just reporting.” Conversation which potentially increase your sale.

            “Secondly, I’m sure you know that studies have shown physical activity can result in improvements in MANY areas of cognition, not just brain areas responsible for motion. Seehttp://www.health.harvard.edu/… for a start on that thread.” Mr Steven do you even read what you reference? from your source:

            “As I write in the May 2014 Harvard Health Letter, exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

            Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.” Exercise are good for brain by increasing neuroplasticity and genesis not by stimualtion from feets.

            “And, yes, you’re right that it’s POSSIBLE that walking with increased sensory input COULD result in lessening of gray matter… that’s why what Kirk and I discussed is a HYPOTHESIS… just like your idea is a HYPOTHESIS. There are arguments to be made in favor of each. Testing would tell.” yes but differenceis that your hypothesis is contrary to basic neuroscience. Dont get me wrong barefoot can increase balance by stimulation I agree with that but claming that this is responsible for whole brain is not only flawed but silly.

          • This is the kind of conversation that’s best suited for real-time.

            If you would like to come out from behind your anonymous wall and have that chat, I’m sure it would not only be fun, but you would find less to argue with than you think.

            Feel free to email me and we can schedule a time to have that chat and, for the edification of any readers/watchers, record and publish it as well. I’m at steven@xeroshoes.com

          • Guest

            This is your argument? I give you reference to studies you on the other hands reference source which are contrary to what you say. I will do this very willingly

            but like you see I dont have much time (like you can see from time its take me to answear). I ask you for your theory you dont give any scientific source that confirm what you say, show no basic understanding of neurology, any person can easily to verify this. You can easily close my mouth with one study which confirm your statment only one.

          • No, it’s not my “argument.” It’s my OFFER because, like you, I’m a very busy person. And because this thread has gotten caught in a loop that’s clearly going nowhere. And because, as I said, this type of conversation is typically more productive in real-time.

          • Guest

            The problem is it’s not more productive, why because this type of conversation requires reference from scientific studies( yes I have my own base on HDD but pulling correct its not possible in real time conversation at least not in such a short time) that is why Disqus and other give you such option its more productive if it comes of scientific evidence, which you dont give me in any comment.