Archive for June, 2008

Take care of your feet with a good pair of shoes

At What About Shoes we’ve discussed why shoes can be bad for you, but the world is hardly likely to stop wearing shoes, so now we’ll turn our attention to ensuring that the shoes we do buy are as good for our feet as they can be.

In an article for Northwest Asian weekly, Dr Peter Jo says that we need to buy shoes that provide our feet with a measure of stability. He says that when our feet aren’t stable, our bodies react by tightening all of our muscles, and this causes undue pain and tension that can lead to headaches and problems with posture.

Dr Jo’s first suggestion for finding a good shoe is to make sure that it fits. Obvious isn’t it? Now, consider all of the shoes in your cupboard. How many do you have to wriggle your feet into? How many pinch just a bit in the toes or are a bit snug at the heel. As Dr Jo says, if you have to grunt to get it on, it doesn’t fit.

To ensure that you buy shoes that fit properly it’s advisable to shop late in the afternoon or early evening, as this is when your feet are their biggest. As inelegant as it sounds, your feet swell during the day. This is true for everyone, which means that if you buy a pair of shoes that just fit in the morning; your feet could be singing Beethoven’s 5th by the time the sun sets.

Another top tip from Dr Jo is to have both of your feet measured. One charming eccentricity shared by all pairs of feet on the planet is that one foot is always bigger than the other one. You need to ensure that your shoes are comfortable on both of your feet, the big one and the little one.

You also want to make sure that your shoes suit whatever activity you engage in. This means that you shouldn’t wear soccer boots on the golf course. Not because you could damage the greens and fairways, but because the soccer shoe won’t provide the right support for your golf swing, or during the long walks in the rough as you look for lost balls. So, basically, wear soccer shoes to play soccer, golf shoes to play golf, running shoes to run, and sturdy yet flexible walking shoes for marathon shopping sprees.

I could go on about how you shouldn’t wear shoes with heels more than three quarters of an inch (1.9cm) high, or how sandals with broad straps across your toes and with a strap at the heel are better than sandals with flimsy straps, but you’ve heard it all before. And in any event, if you’re a slave to fashion, you’re not likely to pay much attention, no matter how dire the warnings (bent spines, shortened calf muscles, bunions, hip and knee problems etc).

I could also go on about how you shouldn’t wear the same pair of shoes for more than two days in a row, so that your feet can rest and your shoes can retain their proper shape. I could stress the importance of letting your shoes breathe, which suggests that our shoe cupboards are not as sanitary as we think they are, but again, it’s all old news and not likely to cause the merest fluttering of an eyelid.

So the question then is what am I going to say? Only this: your feet have to carry you around your entire life. No matter how much you may want to, you can’t change their basic structure to suit prevailing fashion trends or exchange them for newer models when they’re old and tired. Don’t punish them by forcing them to work hard in shoes that are unreasonably uncomfortable and throw your whole body out of whack. Look after your feet well, and they will look after you in your dotage.


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Why we need to learn to walk properly

Most of us find walking an easy enough task. We simply place one foot in front of the other and watch as the scenery goes by. It’s an action accomplished without thought or concentration, which sometimes results in us measuring our length on the floor, but more often than not, we arrive unscathed at the end of each day. Babies do it, how hard can it be, right?

According to an article by Adam Sternbergh on, very few people actually walk properly, and the reason for this is our firm belief in a good pair of shoes. We seem to believe that our feet are too delicate to cope with the rigours of life and try to compensate by designing fancier and fancier shoes. We learn how to walk in shoes and forget how to walk with bare feet, which studies have found to be infinitely beneficial. We forget how to use the muscles in our feet because our shoes are designed to take the challenge out of walking, which, paradoxically, only makes walking harder.

Amy Matthews is a private movement therapist in New York, and also teaches classes on how to walk properly. She teaches her students to roll through each step, rather than slapping their feet to the floor. The point is to work all of the muscles in your feet and to feel the ground throughout the length of your foot, from your heels all the way to your toes.

Shoes don’t allow you to do this. They work against the natural movement of your feet, and can, in this way, cause a lot of damage. Consider trainers, or athletic shoes. Nearly everyone on this planet owns at least one pair. It doesn’t matter if you use them in pursuit of physical fitness or not. They’ve become so popular precisely because they’re designed to be comfortable and versatile. If you’re a serious athlete you can buy shoes with a variety of features. You can get advanced cushioning for your feet, support for your ankles and correct problems such as pronation and fallen arches.

There is an assumption that the more expensive the shoe, the better it’ll be for your feet. This assumption was disproved in a paper published in 1991 called “Athletic Footwear: Unsafe Due to Perceptual Illusions”, which revealed that expensive shoes with special features resulted in more injuries than simple, inexpensive shoes. In another study it was found that cushioned shoes caused twice as many injuries as hard-soled shoes.

This finding was upheld in a 1997 study that showed that the more padding a running shoe has, the harder runners hit the ground. Apparently we need to feel the ground to feel balanced; so, technically speaking, cushioned, shock-absorbing shoes unbalance us. The study found that when we wear shoes, our ability to judge how much weight we should apply to the surface of the ground is diminished, but when we are barefoot we are able to estimate the right weight instinctively.

For years doctors have been trying to reduce the stress to injured knees and joints with padded shoes and braces, with varying degrees of success. Determined to get to the bottom of the problem, a group of rheumatologists from Chicago’s Rush Medical College conducted a study to determine the stress that knees experienced while walking. People were asked to walk in shoes and then barefoot, while the impact on their knees was measured. They found that the impact was 12% lower when people walked barefoot in relation to when they wore padded shoes.

So, while we think we’re doing our feet a favour by swaddling them in expensive shoes, we’re actually doing them more harm than good. The trouble is that the idea of protecting our feet has been ingrained over hundreds of years, and thinking habits that old are difficult to change. For those of us who remain in close contact with our inner-child, the thought of abandoning our shoes (within reason) is a cheerful one. Others will have to learn to adapt, or else embrace the technology of barefoot shoes, which will be covered in a future post.

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