Your Shoes Are Killing Your Feet

23 Apr

Your shoes are destroying your feet. More specifically, they’re messing up the perfectly-balanced, coordinated bipedal gait that our species evolved over millions of years.

That’s the argument touted by a lengthy article in New York magazine this week, You Walk Wrong. Its starting point is a number of podiatric studies showing that going barefoot is better for your feet than wearing shoes: unshod Zulus have healthier feet than shoe-wearing Europeans, and prehistoric humans appear to have had the healthiest feet of all. And if you must wear shoes, it turns out that the less shoe you wear, the better, because expensive running shoes are no better than cheap ones, and wearing expensive running shoes actually increases your odds of getting injured by 123%.

But first, New York wants you to know all about Galahad Clark, the scion of a British shoe-manufacturing family, who got into the un-shoe business after hanging out with the Wu-Tang Clan, Rem Koolhaas, and a young tennis-playing industrial designer named Tim Brennan.  Eventually Clark came up with the Vivo Barefoot, a $160 un-shoe that is as close to going barefoot as you can get while still providing some protection against the dog shit, hypodermic needles and broken glass that clog the streets of New York (and San Francisco, for that matter).

The authors of the "shod vs. unshod" study (.pdf), Bernard Zipfel and Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, argue that going barefoot is the optimal condition for humans. It makes a certain intuitive sense, because the human foot evolved over millennia in the absence of shoes, during which time humans walked just fine, thank you very much. Modern shoes significantly change the way the foot works: Their stiffness prevents the foot from flexing as it normally would, and their big, cushioned heels absorb so much shock that they actually encourage you to drive your heel into the ground much more firmly than you would if you were barefoot.

A barefoot walking or running gait is much gentler and smoother, in which your foot placement is flatter (rather than heel-first) and the arches of your feet deflect more to absorb the load. And it turns out that this might be better for your knees as well as your feet, because even though those thick soles are absorbing the immediate shock to your foot, your steps while wearing shoes still transmit more shock to your knees than your barefoot steps do.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that there are many advocates of the barefoot lifestyle and barefoot running on the internet, and there’s even a barefoot marathon-running Christian minister.

There are a couple of problems with the "let's just kick off our shoes" line: People have been wearing shoes for 30,000 years, and prehistoric humans tended to get killed off by disease, starvation or predators at a much younger age, meaning they had a lot less time to wreck their feet through ordinary use. And there are a lot of places where you really don’t want to go barefoot, or even really wear a thin un-shoe: Like in the snow, or at work, or when trying to hail a cab.

Still, I’m predisposed to like the anti-shoe argument, because I enjoy going barefoot, and, heck, it’s Spring. What about you?

Image: What shoes can do your feet. Source: University of the Witwatersrand

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