Path to Better Health

Reflexology footpaths allow you to saunter your way to greater well-being.

by Jodi Hemler

October 2013

It is possible to experience reflexology—which involves rubbing specific energy points on the feet, each associated with a different organ or body system—without making an appointment.

Reflexology footpaths made from a series of stones, some thick and round and others narrow and laid on their sides, are popping up in parks, spas and other public spaces.

A walk along the stone footpaths is designed to stimulate the feet’s reflex points, leading to health benefits such as increased blood circulation, enhanced digestion, improved balance, pain relief and stress reduction.

“The paths are great to walk on,” says Lila Mueller, a board certified reflexologist in Wisconsin and recording secretary for the Reflexology Association of America (www.reflexology-usa.org). “It’s like a mini reflexology session in the park.”

A New Trend

While the paths have been popular in Asia for decades, the concept is just starting to catch on in the US. A growing interest in alternative therapies coupled with research that supports the benefits of reflexology has led to the construction of reflexology footpaths in parks, healthcare facilities and spas, and on college campuses, across the country. They range from 12 to more than 60 feet, arranged in circles and other shapes.

In addition to offering some of the health benefits associated with a traditional reflexology session, the outdoor paths provide a connection with nature and an accessible opportunity for regular self-care.

“We see a lot of people taking off their shoes and walking on the paths,” says Jessica Emerson, business development and partnership manager for King County Parks in Washington State. “Some people include the paths as a form of morning meditation and others use them to relax after their workouts.”

The parks department installed reflexology footpaths at three locations—Marymoor Park, White Center Heights Park and Steve Cox Memorial Park—in 2007. A licensed reflexologist designed the paths and the installations have attracted a lot of attention.

“The paths are pretty unique in America,” Emerson says. “A lot people had never seen [the paths] before and had no idea what they were for.”

User Instructions

To explain the concept, signs beside the county’s paths describe their purpose along with instructions for how to use them. They advise walkers to go at their own pace, use the handrails for balance, take breaks if needed and drink plenty of water to wash away toxins.

If you’ve never walked on a reflexology footpath, Mueller suggests starting slowly. “If your energy flow is stagnant, it could be painful to walk the path,” she says. “You should ease into it and never push past your pain tolerance.”

Don’t expect to walk the entire path the first time out. Instead, explore small sections and take breaks for mini self-massages to ease any tenderness caused by walking on the uneven stones. The discomfort should dissipate if you walk the paths regularly—and your health may benefit, too.

An Oregon Research Institute study found that walking on cobblestone mats 30 minutes per day for 16 weeks led to significant reductions in blood pressure as well as improvements in balance and physical performance. (Mueller notes that cobblestone mats, which are available through major housewares retailers, serve as a good substitute if there isn’t a reflexology footpath near you).

Reflexology also appears to benefit breast cancer patients. Researchers at Michigan State University found that reflexology reduced the physical symptoms of chemotherapy and improved functioning during breast cancer treatment. As an outgrowth of that work, researchers decided to install a reflexology footpath on campus in Lansing, Michigan, in 2012.

The path lies adjacent to MSU’s new College of Nursing building. Its five sections are designed to stimulate various parts of the body in accordance with the five Chinese elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal, according to Gwen Wyatt, RN, PhD, a professor of nursing at the college.

MSU researchers haven’t yet studied the impact of their reflexology path on health but Wyatt believes some of the benefits are already obvious.

“Instructors have taken their classes out to walk the path to gain knowledge, students will walk the path between classes as a way to center and meditate before going into the classroom [and] staff often use the path during lunch time,” she says. “The path is an opportunity for the university community and the broader public to experience a sample of reflexology.”

Spas have started to install the paths. You can also test out reflexology paths at the Canyon Ranch Spa Club at the Homestead in Virginia, Laniwai—A Disney Spa in Hawaii, and Ashiyu Foot Spa in Portland, Oregon.

For example, La Costa Resort and Spa in California installed one in 2012. The path is made from stones collected from a nearby beach that are embedded into a design featuring stones of all shapes and sizes to help stimulate the reflex points.

While the paths are helpful, Mueller believes they should be used as an adjunct to sessions with a trained reflexologist instead of a replacement for hands-on treatment.

“A reflexologist will also concentrate on the sides of your feet and the tops of your feet, which are areas that you can’t stimulate by walking on a path. In a reflexology session, you can also focus on specific areas that need attention,” she says. “But the paths are great to get more people thinking about reflexology.”

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