What's the human sense you can't touch, smell, or hear?
It’s your balance.
But great balance isn’t about pulling off headstands and backflips. Your sense of balance is with you every step you take (we could add ‘every move you make’, but we won’t go there).
Balance is probably the least appreciated of our senses as there isn’t a single organ providing it that we can point to like our nose, mouth, or eyes; and yet, when we lose our balance we realise – sometimes painfully – just how important it is.
A great part of our sense of balance comes from the vestibular system: three tiny, fluid-filled canals, stones, and ‘hairs’ inside our inner ear that detect gravity and movement, then send messages to the brain. Our balance also depends on messages the brain gets from around the body, especially touch. Which is where feet come in.
Stand by a wall and, not holding on to it, stand on one foot. (OK, on your toes if that’s too easy, you ballet dancer you). Now, lightly touch the wall and see how much easier that is. With the extra sensory input from your hands, your vestibular information has super-speedily recalibrated your balance, and you feel more secure. Balance is always with us because it’s our mechanism to deal with gravity.
Our vestibular system doesn’t always react so fast; just ask someone lurching around after a day spent on a sailboat on a choppy day. But it’s usually not until we start ageing (insert sigh here) and losing our sense of balance that we really get how important it is.
All brain systems decay over time, and so does the vestibular system. But don’t slump on the sofa yet: there are proven ways to help slow this, as well as help set your kids up for their future too. The answer lies in your feet!
James Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University, discovered if he put tiny electrical impulses into the insole of a shoe, 80-year-olds could stand as straight as a 30-year-old. And a study by the Oregon Research Institute for the American Geriatrics Society found walking on cobblestones improved balance and reduced blood pressure in their sample of older people.
Walking on bare feet in nature can have the same effect. Let your feet feel their way across the world, and get your kids to join you. And if actually being barefoot is unrealistic, try barely-there shoes that are as close to barefoot as possible. Because bare feet are better for brains as well as bodies; for today and the future.