“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
. – Albert Einstein
The feet & ankles in balance
The feet provide a relatively narrow base for walking, and the ankles are quite slender when you consider that they carry the entire weight of the body for many hours each day. These distal appendages make up for their small size by being strong and supple enough for us to walk, run and jump with dexterity and grace.
Along with being agile, the soles of the feet are home to countless proprioceptive sensors, which provide vital feedback to the brain regarding the terrain we’re walking over. Similar sensors in our ankles also provide important information on the body’s swaying position in space as we move.
We have clusters of proprioceptive sensors around the body specifically related to helping us balance. They’re located in the soles of the feet, the ankles, the hips, the spine, and the neck.
When we stand and walk the soles of our feet the only part of our body in touch with the environment, so they have an especially high number sensors. We have 100,000 – 200,000 in the sole of each foot, making our feet among the most nerve rich parts of the body.
They work by sending sensory information from the feet to up to the brain, which then makes subtle adjustments to our gait so we can continue to stand, walk and run with ease. This proprioceptive feedback loop takes place in milliseconds and is in constant process with each step we take.
Unfortunately, with age and after a lifetime of wearing shoes, these sensors are prone to deterioration. They can also be impaired by injury, or disorders like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Many of the falls that older people suffer from are caused by dulled proprioceptors failing to communicate properly.
The good news is that proprioceptive responses can be improved at any age, and usually with the practice of a couple of simple balance poses each day. Regular practice is key.
Ankle proprioception is arguably one of the most important contributors to good balance. The proprioceptive sensors of the ankles are located deep within the joint at the talus bone. Cues from these ankle sensors are sent to the brain to communicate the body’s movement or sway relative to both the standing surface (e.g. carpet, concrete, earth, or ice) and the quality of that surface (e.g. hard, soft, slippery, or uneven).
For example, if we start to lean forward our brain senses the increased pressure in the toes, as well as the front of the ankles bending. If the brain (with the help of the eyes and vestibular organs) detects we’re close to falling, it sends a signal to the muscles in the back of the body to pull us back upright again.
Try these foot and ankle proprioception improving tips:
- Practice balancing barefoot and as you become more adept try standing on increasingly unstable surfaces to stimulate the proprioceptors. Begin on a firm, flat surface, and then progress to a folded yoga mat, blanket or cushion, or a yoga block, then an inflatable balance disc, and so on. Perhaps even a slack line! (See top right.)
- Along the way integrate closing your eyes so that you’re forced to rely on your proprioceptive and vestibular sensors instead of the usually stronger balance sense of vision.
- Get in the habit of spending more time walking around barefoot in your home or garden, or at the beach. The different textures and terrains that your feet will encounter will stimulate the foot sensors and can even feel quite pleasurable. Soft, cool, green grass under bare feet on a warm summer’s day anyone?
Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and 20 muscles which it uses to help navigate the surfaces we walk upon, from concrete sidewalks to rocky trails. In order for the feet to function well they need to be both supple and strong. Stiff, weak feet are major contributors to poor balance.
A sedentary lifestyle and injury are common culprits for weak feet. On top of that, many of us tend to over pronate (collapse inwards) on our feet, and some tend to over supinate (roll them out). Both of these issues can have an impact on how we stand and walk by affecting the ability of the foot sensors to function optimally. Pronation and supination can additionally affect the joints further along the kinetic chain (ankles, knees and hips), which also has the potential to disturb our overall balance.
So strong, aware feet are crucial for healthy balance. For help with strengthening your feet, check out my post on how to develop strong and capable feet.
Just like the feet, if the ankles are weak or stiff they negatively affect our balance. If these narrow joints are unstable they’re more prone to injury and we’re far more likely to trip or fall.
Ankle injures are especially problematic because when a joint gets injured its proprioceptors can also become damaged. Take ankle sprains for instance. If you’ve ever sprained an ankle you’ll likely know that it almost immediately feels unstable (as well as very painful) to stand on. In fact, previous ankle sprains, even if they occurred many years in the past, can be an indicator of balance instability issues in later life.
Improving ankle stability and strength is relatively easy and many of the feet training exercises at this previous post also help with the ankles.
Foot & ankle strengthening
For foot and ankle strength, one legged balances, and most of the other standing yoga asanas will help. You could also try some calf raises on the floor or on a slant board (see right). This exercise helps with both foot and ankle strength and flexibility, as well as balance. Prop tip: when raising your heels, keep your inner feet (big toe mounds) pressing down!
More yoga for healthy balance articles:
- Strength & flexibility needed for balance
- Center of gravity
- The three inner balance sensors
- Static vs. dynamic balance
- Feet & ankles for balance
- Brain gains from balance
For more yoga articles, updates, classes and workshops, sign up for my newsletter at the top of the page or like on Facebook at Ann West :: Iyengar Yoga. You can contact me directly by email or call (858) 224-2484.