Walk—on uneven surfaces, dirt, and golf balls

Walking is good exercise. Actually, any type of movement—unloading the dishwasher, raking leaves, cleaning the house—is beneficial and trumps passivity. For many people walking is a good option because it’s so simple and available.  

Here are three suggestions that will make walking more beneficial.

Walk on uneven surfaces.

Instead of walking on a treadmill or a flat surface, walk on uneven surfaces like grass or outdoor natural terrain. 

When we walk on even, predictable surfaces, our bodies and minds quickly go on autopilot. But when the ground we walk on is irregular our muscles must constantly adjust to the changes. 

A recent study from the University of Michigan examined the physical differences between walking on uneven terrain compared with smooth surfaces. Using a special treadmill that mimicked walking over trails, grass, and uneven pavement, the researchers learned that walking on a surface that varied by only one inch from a flat, smooth surface  increased calorie-burning by 28 percent.

Walking on uneven surfaces also demands more mental effort. For instance, don’t underestimate how much brain power is required to do simple tasks, like reaching out and grasping a cup of coffee. Millions of neurons are firing as you make simple moves. When you walk on uneven surfaces your mind must constantly calculate how to negotiate those movements, and that’s good mental exercise.  

Walk barefoot, preferably on dirt. 

Grounding, or earthing, is the theory that barefoot contact is beneficial. Grounding happens when you walk barefoot on grass, dirt, sand, gravel, or concrete.

One reason direct physical contact with the ground might be beneficial is that the earth’s surface has a negative charge and is constantly generating electrons that could neutralize free radicals, which act as antioxidants. Research also suggests physical contact with the earth’s surface can help regulate our autonomic nervous system and keep our circadian rhythms—which regulate body temperature, hormone secretion, digestion and blood pressure, among other things—synchronized with the day/night cycle.

Walk on golf balls (or some other stark surface).

Reflexology is an alternative medical practice that applies pressure to specific areas of the foot. The theory behind reflexology is that specific areas of the foot correspond to organs and systems of the body. So pressure applied to the foot is thought to bring relaxation and healing to corresponding areas of the body. Several studies indicate that reflexology may reduce pain and psychological symptoms, such as stress and anxiety, and enhance relaxation and sleep. Because reflexology is also low risk, it is a reasonable option for relaxation and stress relief. 

Physical therapists and massage therapists offer reflexology treatments, but you can produce similar benefits by rolling your feet on hard, uneven surfaces such as a golf ball or the edge of a table or chair. In essence, give yourself a foot massage. 

I realize that parts of this post may seem esoteric and unscientific, and it may be. If nothing else, I encourage you to walk more (which is undoubtably beneficial) and experiment with the three suggestions. When I work in my vineyard, I’m barefoot, walking on dirt and grass, and it’s wonderfully therapeutic. 

Action item — Walk (and now you know where you walk is important).

Discussion — Share some of your walking habits.

16 Replies to “Walk—on uneven surfaces, dirt, and golf balls”

  1. I often have foot pain and it always helps to roll my foot on a golf ball or other rounded surface. I even bought a nubby type ball that feels great. All of these are great ideas with walking the top of the list to keep active and healthy.

    1. Thanks, Scott, for taking the time to respond. I’ll look for one of those nubby balls. I also massage the bottom of my feet using the support bracket under my desk Anything will help. Take care.

  2. Dear Don,
    Neurobics on parade. Excellent post . This is why I want my mountain vacation home located on the beach.
    Also, non dominant hand writing is considered a form of Neurobics.
    Fun to be barefoot in the vineyard! What a great idea.

  3. Great insight, but I have also lived long enough to be discerning regarding the experts. We are all human. So, if able to walk on uneven surfaces, just please be aware of your surroundings and personal limitations so you don’t flip an ankle.

    Start slowly, and work your way up. Unless, of course, you are like my friend who celebrated his 85th birthday with an axel jump (1.5 revolutions airborne) at the ice rink. Then again, he’s a lifelong skater. (Hint: if an activity is new, be realistic. And then enjoy!)

    1. Jan, you give good advice. Start small and go slow and gradually increase. Take care and thanks for taking the time to respond.

  4. After falling several times I took up Tai Chi I do a 20 minute routine every day. It has been almost 2 years since I started this and I have not fallen since. On YouTube try Don Fiore 8 minutes best for beginners. I bought his DVD that has the 20 minute routine.

    1. Dave, thanks for the advice. Mary and I do yoga, but Tai Chi may help us to fine-tune our workout. Take care.

  5. Thanks for letting me have an “I do something right” moment. One of the reasons my husband and I have done so well during this past year is that we frequently visit the state park at Lake Ray Roberts and walk the mountain bike (Dorba) trail. There is a great variety of ground surface on that trail through the woods and up and down rocky, uneven ground. And, we get some nice views of the lake too.. When do this we generally walk 5 to 6 miles. Hiking boots and trekking poles are a big help.
    I will get out my husband’s foot massager now that I understand it would have similar movement to reflexology. I am just not a barefoot person.

    1. Vicki, I’m proud of you and your husband for staying active in such an interesting way. Keep that up and you’ll last a long time. Take care.

    1. Roger, thanks for introducing a marvelous subtlety into the conversation – walking on sand that has varying degrees of wetness. Also, thanks for writing an interesting article. I, too, have often marveled at how trombonist and violinist find that first pitch.

  6. Very good information! I hope allot of people come to this realization and understand the importance of this. Thank you.

  7. What is the name of the special treadmill that mimicks walking over trails, grass, and uneven pavement? Is it commercially available or was is specialized for the research at the University of Michigan?

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