Archive for May, 2008

Is barefoot best?

Children hate wearing shoes. I’ll admit that this is a generalisation. It’s entirely possible that there are children out there who can’t wait to put their shoes on in the morning, but I’ve never heard of them. In my experience, children experience shoes as a form of torture. They put up a good fight when they’re forced to put them on and whip them off at the earliest opportunity. Children love to feel the grass beneath their feet, bathe their toes in mud, and test their endurance by running pell-mell over thorns.

According to the results of a study by researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, which was published in 2007, adults can learn a lot from the barefoot shenanigans of children. Not when it comes to thorns, obviously, but it seems that going barefoot is actually better for you feet than wearing shoes.

Dr Bernhard Zipfel, who is a Podiatrist and University Curator of Fossil Collections, and Professor Lee Berger, from the Institute for Human Evolution and the Bernard Institute in the School of Geosciences, studied more than 180 people across the Zula, Sotho and European population groups, in South Africa. They also studied a number of 2000-year old human skeletons.

They found that the skeletons, who never wore shoes when they were alive, had healthier feet than humans of today. Among their living subjects, they found that the Zulu population had the healthiest feet. European feet fared the worst, with the most pathologies. Dr Zipfel suggests that the reason for this is that the Zulu and Sotho groups probably wore shoes less often as children than the Europeans. It also suggests that a lot of the damage done to our feet occurs when we’re children and our growing and developing feet are bound by restrictive shoes. If I were a mother that would make me think twice before I made my children put shoes on to ward off a chill.

In addition to the difference in foot pathologies among different populations, the study also drew attention to the difference between the sexes. It comes as no surprise that woman do more damage to their feet than men. After all, men seldom complain of uncomfortable shoes, if shoes are uncomfortable they simply don’t buy them. If they were initially comfortable but cease to be so over time, men stop wearing them.

Women, on the other hand, balance precariously on top of heels that they know are too high (says she in spectacular high-heeled purple boots – at least they’re comfortable. Honestly). Women will wear shoes that look good no matter how uncomfortable they are or how much they hurt. Again this is a generalisation, but it’s a fair one. Many women damage their feet so badly that by the time they hit mid-life they can’t wear their beloved high-fashion footwear. They are relegated to the kind of flat, comfortable shoes like the ones their grannies wore. Horrors.

No one is saying that women have to give up their discomfort. It’s perfectly acceptable to totter on heels too high and in shoes too tight during the week if necessary. Just kick or wedge them off with a shoehorn and walk around barefoot when you get home, especially over weekends. As an added bonus, this practice will give you an indication of how clean your floors really are.

As healthy as going barefoot is, it should remembered that there are instances when you should always be shod. Dr Zipfel mentioned public areas, restaurants, toilets and situation where you might step on something sharp. That encompasses just about everywhere you could possibly go.

I agree with him about restaurants, barefoot patrons do lower the tone, but it also depends on where the restaurant is. A restaurant on the beach, for example, might tolerate bare feet, but you wouldn’t try it at an expensive restaurant that only admits men if they wear a tie. Parks are also public areas where it’s ok to take your shoes off. In the age of apartment living, public parks are often the only places where some people experience grass, it would be a shame to diminish that experience by enforcing shoes. Parks are, however, breeding grounds for sharp objects (thorns, stones, broken bottles and glass), as well as other barefoot hazards, so you might want to watch your step.

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What about shoes

The world is full of shoes, old shoes, new shoes, delicate shoes, chunky shoes, evening shoes, day shoes, party shoes, work shoes and shoes we wear before we go to sleep at night. Shoes have spawned a number of shoe-related industries, think of hosiery or shoe repairs. There is even an industry that specialises in shoe hanging equipment.

Shoes perform a relatively humble function, but to many people, shoes mean so much more than mere protection or adornment. It is to these people, and anyone with even a passing interest in feet, that I would like to extend a hearty welcome to What About Shoes, a blog that will address all things shoe related. From the latest developments in shoe technology to the debate about whether wearing shoes is good for you, we have your feet covered.

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