Putting your best foot forward – it’s really a balancing act.
Just ask Stephen Perry, a Wilfrid Laurier University kinesiologist who’s researching how our feet impact our ability to balance.
Perry works with athletes, the elderly, children, and even astronauts to study how the body reacts when pushed to its stability limits.
“We do sensory training with athletes to help them train their body’s ability to understand the forces they need to apply in order to balance,” says Perry. From gymnasts on balance beams to football players trying to break through tackles, athletes can improve the relationship between their feet and brain through repetition and practice.
“Balance control is involuntary,” says Perry. Thousands of pressure sensors on the soles of our feet provide the information that allows us to balance our body weight. But over time as we age, we lose this sensitivity. We develop hard calluses, lose foot nerve function. That’s why the elderly can’t balance as well and are more prone to falls and possible injury, often serious, he says.
“Soft shoes are often given to older adults because they’re more comfortable,” he says. “But these shoes insulate them from the environment.” Perry’s research suggests that the elderly should wear the same types of shoes they wore for the majority of their life, since their feet are accustomed to them.
Through his research, Perry has developed an insole that’s designed to increase the sensory information the feet can provide, helping to improve the balance of seniors.
Perry and his team have also conducted tests on our ability to balance in extreme situations. They’ve frozen the feet of younger people to see what it does to their balance control. “When we take away the sensation, it completely changes how people walk,” he says.
Recently Perry worked with astronauts to study how microgravity affects their feet and balance.
“On earth gravity creates the pressure on our feet, and our feet filter that,” he says. “In space there is no continuous load on the feet, which changes how our body filters that pressure.” That reduction in load makes the feet of astronauts hypersensitive for 11 to 14 days after they return from space.
Through all of his research, Perry’s goal is fundamental: keeping people steady – especially seniors – on their feet.