The feet are the foundation for nearly all functional movements and activities of daily life. It is estimated that the average person will walk about 115,000 miles in their lifetime and by the time they are 70, they will have walked the equivalent of 4 times around the world (1).
The foot can also provide insight to our health and how we move. Many conditions such as arthritis diabetes, and circulatory issues can initially present with symptoms in the feet. Additionally, poor foot mechanics create compensatory movement patterns, which can result in hip, knee, or back pain.
The foot is a complex and sophisticated structure comprised of 28 bones and 35 joints. It is held together by 120 ligaments and 20 muscles. Additionally, we have more than 7,000 nerve endings in each foot, which is more than any other body part. It is theorized that this is because we rely on the body awareness or proprioception in the feet to send unconscious signals to our brains to help us balance and coordinate how we move through space.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is the unconscious ability to sense the position and movement of a joint or body part in space. This happens through sensory receptors called proprioceptors, which are located in the inner ear, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. Proprioceptors respond to stretch, tension, and pressure on our tissues. When they are stimulated, the sensory nerve endings surrounding the proprioceptors send signals to the central nervous system or brain, telling us where our joints are in space.
We rely on these signals to the brain to navigate our environment and react quickly to any changes that might take place. While we need proprioception in all of our joints, it is especially important to have good proprioception in the feet, because they are the first contact point that we have to the ground. This means that they play a critical role in balance and reaction time. For example, being able to sense where our feet are allows us to walk with ease, move through a dark room without running into something, and stop ourselves from falling, if we trip on a step.
However, because we wear ill fitting shoes and don’t spend a lot of time moving our feet, many of us lose proprioception, which can reduce quality of life and increase our risk of injury as we age. Reduced proprioception in the lower leg has been linked to balance problems and an increased risk of falling among older adults. (2) Additionally, it is believed that poor proprioception can play a role in foot pain and it is estimated that a quarter of the population is affected by foot pain at any given time (3).
How to Improve Proprioception in the Feet
One of the best ways to improve foot proprioception and balance is to move the foot and ankle in diverse ranges of motion and stimulate the bottom of the foot and surrounding areas using different tools, including balls and bands.
This helps improve communication and reactivity between the foot and the brain by stimulating the nerve endings in the feet. Addressing foot mechanics and improving proprioception can also promote healthy movement patterns, which can reduce pain in the feet, knees, hips and low back.
The "Back to Front" Foot exercise (demonstrated to the right) teaches proper ankle and foot mechanics while building movement awareness. The ball helps to teach how the joints move by providing tactile cues; for example, if one ankle moves more easily than the other, the ball provides feedback on how to adjust the foot.
You can also use a variety of props, including bands and the Arcus. For more foot exercises and instructions, read Trent's featured article, Mind Over Feet in Pilates Style magazine here.
Trent McEntire, Director and Founder
As someone who became a professional dancer after rehabilitating his own severe movement restrictions established at birth due to Cerebral Palsy, Trent understands how the quality of life is affected by how well you can (or can't) move your body. For 20 years, he has been sharing his discoveries and method with those seeking to overcome their own movement limitations. His work has led to an international school and equipment designed to further the development of Pilates Therapy and Neuro-Movement. Trent has presented his work at international conferences and host sites in Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, UK, Brazil, Canada, and throughout the US.