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Improve Your Feet Stability Using The Sensa Mat

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 26 April 2017
Hits: 1963

I have seen some amazing results in my 12 years as a rehab specialist and the past 18 months have been the most dramatic as we had been working with many clients to learn how to walk again using various old and new methods. One of the new methods was using a piece of equipment called a Sensa Mat. Something that seemed so simple, yet so effective. In the past few months I have experimented on myself with this, and much to my amazement it has changed my body significantly in terms of stability and strength! I admit I completely underestimated the power of some of these exercises we were using and how activating small muscles within the feet can make such a big effect up the chain. (If you have never read our success stories before make sure you check this out by clicking here). We originally introduced this type of training while trying to find a way to help people who had suffered a severe injury like a spinal cord injury, or a disease such as a stroke that completely disabled their brain and nervous system function, to be able to walk. Something we all take for granted, but if you lose it, trust me it can make life very difficult. Using simple muscle based exercises is a complete waste of time for it is not a muscle problem but a brain problem. We had to use methods to activate the brain and nervous system. And this was one big discovery for us that has changed how we train everyone.

What Is The Sensa Mat?

The Sensa Mat is really a small mat you stand on that has 100 small rubber spikes in it! You can purchase this from AOK Health by clicking here.

In a recent study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute (ORI), textured surface for the feet exercise has demonstrated an improvement in physical function and reduction in blood pressure to a greater extent than conventional walking in older adults. This was mainly due to the effect the mat has on what are known as mechanoreceptors in the sole of the feet in the skin. These mechanoreceptors have a large impact on balance and postural control. As we age, we experience DECREASED information from foot sole skin input. One solution is to augment skin information with the intent of improving balance. Mechanoreceptors are structures in the body that enable people to experience physical sensations. They feed tactile information to the brain so the brain can process it, providing information about objects in the environment people interact with, as well as vibrations in the air and other sources of physical sensation. There are a number of types of mechanoreceptors, designed to sense different kinds of tactile information, and these structures function in different ways. In disorders involving sensory sensitivity, people may have problems with their mechanoreceptors or the nerves that carry information from these structures to the brain. This is why we originally started using it with clients such as spinal cord injury, stroke, MS and various other disabilities. I had read about the concept of getting people with brain injury to learn how to walk better by walking barefoot on various surfaces many years ago in the book "Motor Learning & Performance" by Richard Schmidt. I had experimented taking people to the park to do this but when I found the Sensa Mat this seemed like a much better solution. What I did not realize is that as much as it was helping people with severe injury and older adults with balance problems, it also could make a massive difference to the everyday person.

Below is a picture of two clients who we have used this mat extensively with. Frank Cannizzo and Rita Ioannou who is walking on the longer sensa mat.

Here is some of Frank's story

"My journey started some 18 months ago. After a couple of years of trying to find a cause for my back pain,  the doctors found that I had a 65mm long tumour growing inside my spinal cord between T4 – T7 vertebrae. I never would have expected anything like that! Doing nothing was not an option, so I was booked in and had the tumour surgically removed. Doctors did say there was a chance of paraplegia, but I thought that would never happen to me. “Lucky Frank” ! The tumour was benign, but it did leave me numb from the waist down and with no motor function in my left leg and impaired sensory function in both legs. I had never been in a wheelchair before but soon mastered it, as it was the only way I could get around. I spent hours just doing laps of my ward at Cabrini. Determined to regain some sort of mobility."

I then proceeded to endure a couple of months in Rehab at Caulfield Hospital. Great staff and facilities, but the accommodation and food are a good reason to get well as soon as possible and get the hell out of there. I was doing rehab at the Angliss when my wife asked me to consider coming down to No Regrets. Nella was doing the cancer patients program and was really loving her time with Elley and the crew. She told me about some of the different people that No Regrets had worked with, and how they had some amazing results. I came on down and had a chat with Nick and have never looked back. I have gone from barely being able to struggle from the street into the Gym, to now being able get around the garden, mow the lawn, wash the car and do all those things we take for granted when you are able bodied. Although still reliant on my faithful crutch, I am moving with some confidence and a lot more stability than months gone by. With the structured exercise programs developing core and targeted areas, we have been working towards getting up and down stairs, up and down off the ground, bending , stretching, and all movements which are part of every day life. Challenging the body to re learn and find new ways of getting these legs working again." By Frank Cannizzo.

How Does This Benefit All Of Us In Our Training?

So we have seen how this can have a dramatic effect on people with injury or a disease but what about if you have nothing wrong with you? Or maybe a few aches and pains but you can walk okay, is using this still of benefit? Absolutely. This is where the basis for Barefoot training exploded in recent years. This is not a new thing, over the past 10 years the Fitness industry has been going crazy with all different fads, new shoes that embrace this training, and all types of people endorsing barefoot. But like most new things, people rush to it without fully understanding what it does, how to do it right and appreciating they need to slowly build up to a point where their body can handle it. Hence there has been many injuries from rushing to barefoot training, or even using minimalist shoes as a result, and conclusions have been mistakenly been drawn that now it is bad for you, when earlier it was great for you. There must be a transition and gradual progress to training this way, you cannot go cold turkey and think nothing will go wrong.

If you're unable to perform strength training, walking, jogging, sprinting, agility drills, and even simple jumping drill in either barefoot or the most minimalist shoes, your feet and ankles just aren't functioning optimally. The feet have become lazy and weak and the ankles will in turn become stiff instead of mobile. And like any other body part if it is weak, it must be trained, and the feet are no different. Make sure you read our article Why Poor Ankle Mobility Can Cause A Chain Reaction Of Injury

With over 100 various muscles, the feet and ankles encompass 15-20% of all the muscles in the body!

Our feet and ankles are meant to withstand incredibly high forces and should provide more in terms of shock absorption than perhaps any other body part. Unfortunately, we begin to gradually lose this ability once we start wearing shoes. Over time, the feet, ankles, and toes become inhibited. And as we expose our feet to some trendy shoes with all types of padding and support, this only make matters worse and exacerbates the lazy and weak feet muscles..

Besides minimizing the ability to withstand intense ground reactive forces, the body gradually begins sending fewer and fewer signals to the feet, leading to distortions in pro-prioception and loss of innervation all the way up the kinetic chain. This is where injuries are born!

Ultimately, this produces foot and ankle dysfunction that leads to dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the entire body, head to toe, or in this case, toe to head. This where injuries like achilles tendonosis, plantar fasciitis, ACL tear for the knee, patella tracking, piriformis syndrome and basically any leg injury could originate with the feet! You will know the feet are a problem if you are an excessive pronator (Flat feet). Your feet flexor muscles are weak and inhibited. Even if they were not the original problem, they now play a big part in keeping it active. The feet don't need orthotics, they need to be strengthened.

See picture below of the potential chain reaction of problems from developing tight ankles and weak feet.

If you think foot and ankle dysfunction is an isolated issue only affecting your body from the shins down, think again. We have discussed the impact of tight ankles contributing to faulty movements with squatting and bending, which indirectly affects the position of the spine. Poor spinal alignment is often associated with low back pain, neck impingement, shoulder injuries, and inhibition or weakness in your upper body. Below is a description of what happens in the body when a joint becomes dysfunctional.

  1. Feet - The feet have a tendency to being lazy, and easily losing strength and motor control. From poor footwear, to sitting too much, and even the lack of barefoot walking, the feet need exercises to make them stronger and more stable.
  2. Ankle - The ankle tends to develop stiffness very easily and needs more focus on mobility and flexibility.
  3. Knee - The knee like the feet becomes weak and sloppy easily, (VMO for instance completely shuts down with as little as 10ml of fluid present). This in turn creates severe knee injuries and if left untreated eventually chronic stiffness in an attempt to stabilize it. Stability and strength work is needed for this joint.
  4. Hip - This joint is often the cause of many problems. The hips have a tendency towards stiffness and as a result benefit from flexibility and mobility work.
  5. Lumbar Spine - The lumbar spine needs stability to prevent unwanted flexion or extension.

Now apart from all of the dangers of increasing your risk for injuries, you've also minimized the amount of force and power your body can generate as you now have what is called an energy leak. In simple terms you are not getting the best out of your training. Watch the video below about Stability Training for a detailed explanation of what happens when your body cannot stabilize joints like the feet.

The Feet Are Everything

For any movement you do standing up, neural signaling begins at the feet as they are the first part of the body to feel the ground and tell the system what to do. They tell the brain where you are, if you are balanced enough to move yet and basically instigate movement before it even begins. The better the feet and ankles are functioning, the better the signal all they way up the kinetic chain. Unfortunately, a majority of people have foot and ankle dysfunction to varying degrees. No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast, or explosive an athlete is, correcting these foot and ankle deficiencies will only improve upon their overall strength and ability to move as well as reduce their risk for injuries.

Addressing foot and ankle deficiencies will do wonders not only for strength and power but will also do more for technique, muscle function, joint health, and movement mechanics than most forms of corrective exercise. Below is 2 videos of this in action where we use various drills to help people squat with greater depth and mobility. If we improve the squat we also improve your jumping ability as jumping is created from squat movement pattern. If you play sports you would definitely want to do this!

There is many exercises you can do with the Sensa Mat from basic walking on the long mat to lunges, deadlifts and squats. But without a doubt the most effective exercises are all single leg exercises like Single Leg Squats

Out of all the exercises my favourite is The Toe Touch Drill! Watch the video below of how to do it.

These are just some exercises you can use, but feel free to try out all of the single leg variety and see what works for you.

Conclusion

Now we know the brain is in our skull, but as you have seen in this article the feet are equally as important for they are first to know what is going on. Our ignorance to the importance of this, and our abuse of our feet via comfortable shoes that do nothing to preserve our feet stability means we must designate specific exercises and methods to restore what we had before. We have seen how big an impact this can have on the brain with severe injury and disability, the same effect is true for all of us. The potential for injury is huge by neglecting this, and using the Sensa mat within your training on a consistent basis is well worth the effort.

If you currently suffer with any of the injuries mentioned in this article you will find our Free Reports on Injury Prevention and Older Adults Training a great read. Click here or on the images below to get a copy.

If you enjoyed this article and live in Melbourne you can request a Free Posture and Movement assessment by filling in the form below

And if you need specific help with Knee Pain, Piriformis Syndrome or Back Pain you will find our advanced online programs with instant video and PDF book downloads available by clicking the image below of the program you need.