It’s no secret that advanced age comes with a greater propensity toward health deterioration. While this may be accepted in the western world, it is not necessarily so in some Asian cultures.

Seekers of the ‘fountain of youth’ have investigated some of the cultural aspects of living in China, based on the preponderance of healthy and animated Chinese elders. Due in part to this investigation, many Chinese practices have been studied and incorporated into healthy lifestyles in the West. Chinese herbs, acupuncture, qi gong, tai chi and meditation are some of these adapted healthful customs. Now there is scientific evidence that one more Chinese tradition contributes to healthful and graceful aging.

It is common to observe people exercising, dancing and walking back and forth over traditional stone paths in China. Behavioral researchers from the Oregon Research Institute undertook a study to determine if there were health benefits of walking on these rocks. According to an Associated Press report on July 12, 2005, by William McCall, “The path to better health and lower blood pressure may be paved with cobblestones.” This study showed that when people over 60 walked on smooth, rounded cobblestones for just a half an hour a day over four months, they significantly lowered their blood pressure and improved their balance.

The researchers in Eugene, Oregon simulated the rounded, river rock cobblestones with a specially designed mat that subjects walked on in bare feet or with socks for 30 minutes every day. These people were compared with a control group who walked for an hour, three times a week on a regular surface. The results, published in the “Journal of the American Geriatrics Society,” showed that all participants felt better after exercise. However, according to lead researcher John Fisher, only the people that walked on the stones showed significant improvement in balance, measures of mobility and blood pressure.

Walking on rocks likely stimulates reflexology and acupressure points on the feet – where distant and seemingly unrelated areas of the body are linked. This comes as no surprise to practitioners and/or proponents of these systems of bodywork. According to acupuncture (or acupressure) meridian theory, the kidney channel begins on the sole of the foot. Stimulation of this area, known as Kidney 1 or “Gushing Spring,” is said to bring excess energy down from the head. This has the physiological effect of lowering blood pressure.

Fay Horak, an Oregon Health and Science University neurophysiologist who specializes in balance, said the study is evidence that finding ways to maintain mobility and balance can delay and even prevent the effects of aging. According to Horak, “The body relies on two complex methods to maintain balance – the vestibular system in the inner ear and the somatosensory system that connects skin and muscles.” When the ground is uneven, the body relies more on the vestibular system in the inner ear for balance control. As we age, we lose receptors in the inner ear. This is one of the contributors to an increase in falls in the elderly. When the challenge of walking on rocks, an uneven surface, is presented, subjects use the working portion of their vestibular system. Horak suggests that challenging the vestibular system is likely to improve its function.
Proof of improving balance and lowering blood pressure is a big deal. The implications of this finding can be widespread; from foot massages in nursing homes to landscape design (building cobblestone paths), to the creation of shoe inserts. While walking on rocks doesn’t hold the same image of ‘the fountain of youth,’ it is a practice that can participate in enhancing the length and quality of life.