Do you wear foot friendly shoes?
"The complex machinery of the feet plays a critical role not only in the obvious realms of gait patterns and ankle stabilization but also in whole-body balance, nerve conduction, and cardiovascular circulation. Your shoes are affecting a whole lot more than your outfit - they're capping the limits of your health. That professional footwear you're selecting each day is the glass ceiling to your wellbeing. "
"Your shoes shouldn't be holding you up - your feet should. " - Me
I was a dancer for many years, and so I walked around believing that not only did I know my feet better than the average person, but that my feet were stronger as well. This is an interesting assumption when you look at the type of dance I was doing, specifically classical ballet. Yes, I wore pointe shoes. And yes, you're wondering so I'll answer it now - they hurt. A lot. Why would I do that? Why would I wear terrible torture shoes? Because that's how a female dances ballet, and it's the only way you're going to repeatedly walk around on your tippy toes.
Like it or not, most of us spend the majority of the day in shoes of some kind, whether by necessity or choice. As a culture, it is frowned upon to be in public places without shoes, unless that public place is the beach. No shoes, no shirt, no service, am I right? There are also cultural rules around what types of shoes to wear and when. There are casual shoes, exercise shoes, and flip-flops, and those shoes aren't welcome in the work environment or fancy dress up events. Stiletto heels wouldn't be appropriate on a construction site, and steel toe boots wouldn't get you any points for fashion unless you're a lumberjack or still holding out for the second coming of grunge. Takeaway? We have shoes for all occasions, tasks and many reasons. So when we ask 'What are shoes for?' or 'What shoes are best?' we need to be aware that the answer can be complex.
So there are many shoes and many reasons to wear them. But let's break it back a bit. The purpose of shoes, from a practical context, is to protect your feet from the elements and environment. As in, barefoot in snow = no bueno, and walking on sharp rocks without some buffer to your foot skin can suck profoundly. Past that, it's all taster's choice.
"But wait!" I hear you shout, "Shoes are supposed to support our feet!" To which my answer is, oh, really? Then what are all those muscles and bones there for? I'm being sarcastic, but only to jar you a bit because it's a little jarring to ME that the idea of shoes supporting our feet as though they are spineless sea creatures is a widely accepted notion. Let's be clear - 25% of our bones, muscles and nerves in our entire body live BELOW OUR ANKLES. Yes, it's true. One quarter of our very important parts live in the feet, and that's a lot. And we are bipedal (walk upright on our two feet), so distributing so much firepower to the foundation makes sense, right? Feet are like the tires of our car or the foundation of our house - you want these parts to be strong and supportive. And so does it really make sense that we're all walking around (heh) thinking that our foundation, our tires, where the rubber meets the road are these weak, fragile little matchstick houses that need outside support to perform their function? Is it just me, or is that a little weird?
Here's what else strikes me as a little funny - why are we treating feet like they shouldn't move? They have one quarter of our muscles and bones - 26 bones per foot to be specific. For context, that's as many vertebrae as we have in our spine. There are 33 joints in each foot. That is a lot, friend, I think you'll agree. In fact, (and I'll let Katy Bowman tell you), "The foot's thirty-three joints allow the foot 8.6 X 10^36 unique positions. Just in case math isn't your thing, this means that there are more than a zillion (really!) motor programs your foot could have, each one needing an additional brain/body communication. Our current biomechanics, medical, anatomical, and podiatric text identify three motions. That's how stiff our feet have become. Just to be clear, you have the potential for billions and billions or unique foot motions, but we typically talk about three." Uh, what? When I first read that, my head exploded (it grew back).
Why are we only talking about three foot movements? Because shoes, that's why. If the shoes you are wearing aren't letting your feet move, it's like putting a cast on them. And we can all agree casts are not meant for movement, in fact, exactly the opposite. The idea that your feet hurt because they are moving too much and need to be held in a fixed position needs to run away (heh!) right now. If we are only using 3 out of a zillion potential movements, too much movement isn't the problem. Well, I mean repetitive movement in those poor three parts? Definitely. So let's hold everything still in a single position? Mmmm... no. Let's set them them free and mix it up? Yes indeed.
And then there's all those nerves. What are they all doing down there in our feet, other than making us suffer after a day/night of wearing new/tight/terrible shoes? Well, feet are where we meet the ground. In a perfect world (with unicorns and baby animals frolicking together) our unshod, beautifully strong and responsive feet would be giving our brain an exquisitely detailed report on the terrain we are moving across. Without even looking we would be extremely aware of every nuance of the surface, thereby allowing our motor control center to determine the best course of action for aligning and moving our entire body. It's a sad story, friends, that our modern shoe imprisoned feet have lived pretty much their entire lives in captivity. Not just captivity, but solitary confinement sensory deprivation chambers. The only real information they can give our brain is what the inside of our shoe feels like, which has nothing at all to do with your environment. In fact, if you're wearing heels, for example, your feet and ankles would be telling your brain that you are going downhill on a significant grade ALL THE TIME. No variation. Are you, in fact, going downhill all the time? No, not actually, but that's the information your feet are experiencing. So it's no wonder our balance isn't so hot and we ram our baby toes into everything. We don't have accurate information about where we are. I liken it to trying to navigate with an app that isn't updated. That thing will have you driving into the lake if you're not careful.
"Sweet Martha's Cookies!" You cry. "What's to be done?!" Then you run for the closet to purge all your shoes. Please restrain yourself for a moment and hear me out. Remember when I said your feet have lived in captivity since birth? Yeah, that's true for pretty much all of us in a modern society, even if you occasionally ran barefoot in the yard as a kid. So would you just dump your completely domesticated house pet out into the wild and say good luck? I really hope not. We're going to have to re-wild our feet and train them up before letting them out of the shoe box (HAH!). And before we do that, we can be making small changing to our shoe situation, since, as I mentioned earlier, shoes are really a societal norm that's hard to ignore.
So here are a few things we can look for as we seek to make our shoe situation more foot friendly:
1. Your shoes should be attached to your foot
I don't mean like a boa constrictor, but they shouldn't require you to hang on for dear life to keep them in place. Yes, I'm looking at you, flip flops. If you're squeezing your feet muscles to keep your kicks from kicking off, you're walking kind of funny. Not hah hah funny, either. Flip flops for the shower or the poolside, friends, not for walking any kind of distance. Sandals are totally great if they have straps that hold them on your foot.
2. Your toes want to spread out
Believe it or not, toes aren't designed to curl up and taper down into a point. We of shoe shaped feet believe that the widest part of our foot is the ball of the foot/base of the toes/bunion country. Believe it or not, in unshod hunter/gatherer societies, we see this is not the case at all! The widest part of the foot is the generous toe spread at the front. I like this image from Earth Runners because it shows not only what a healthy foot looks like, but also gives us a wonderful analogy of what a tree's experience is like when it can't spread its roots. It also gives us a resource for foot friendly shoes. BOGO!!!
3. Lower your heel height
Shoes with raised heels are referred to as positive heels, but I don't want you to get confused and think that means they're good. Remember, if your heel is higher than the front of your foot you brain/body thinks you're going downhill all the time. Not only is this confusing, it also creates a situation in which your entire body has to compensate for the angle at your feet. This is a good illustration of that:
Also, please believe me when I say that everyone is wearing positive heels, not just women in high heels. Kids and men's shoes have positive heels as well, and it matters. Even an inch of height (a well padded exercise shoe) offsets the body by 20%. Just an inch. Your whole body feels that little lift, even if you're not aware of it. Start to work your way down to a neutral shoe in which your entire foot is on one level.
4. Soften the sole
Remember all those moving parts in our feet? They only get the opportunity to do their thing if the environment will allow for it, and stiff soled shoes definitely don't. So you can start to assess your footwear by noticing if you can bend it or not. If not, maybe look for a pair with a little more give. The more flexible the shoe the more your foot has to move, and they've been casted maybe always, so go slow. Let them get used to all this delicious stimulation a little at a time. The beauties in this picture are from Xero Shoes. Not recommended for beginners, but wow! Look at how bendy they are!
So to come full circle, let's talk again about my arrogant assumption that my ballet dancer feet were in some way superior. Well, they spent most of their time in shoes that make Chinese foot binding look kind of middle-of-the-road. Shoes that are extremely tight, extremely stiff, coming down to a sharp point. Shoes that only allow for movement at the ball of the foot and the ankle. Shoes which I relied upon for the strength to hold me up (for the most part). They were very well attached to my feet, but otherwise they were not AT ALL foot friendly for the health and function of my body. And my feet looked like ground beef for years and I only recently regrew pinky toe nails that look like nails. So was my arrogance actually ignorance? Um, yeah. Me and my feet have been in counseling for some time now, and I think we're going to be okay.
Let's begin to make a more friendly environment for our feet and appreciate how amazing they are!
PS. If you're interested in seeing a list of shoes that meet some or all of the above criteria, check out Nutritious Movement's Shoe List.