It’s still amazing to me how many people complain of foot issues and then reject the notion of going barefoot to cure their problems. Just yesterday I responded to a friend on FaceBook asking for hiking boot recommendations. Like I always do, I recommended barefoot shoes. Vivobarefoot is the brand I have the most experience with, but as long as shoes have a few basic requirements, they can work wonders to rehab painful feet. The response was all about why they can’t because their feet are too sensitive. Duh. Your feet are weak from living in a cast (also called a shoe) for YOUR WHOLE LIFE! If you kept your arm or leg in a cast for a long time and then took the cast off and expected to use it the same way you did previously, people would look at you crazy and tell you to build up your strength in that body part before returning to your normally scheduled activities.
We all understand the basic premise of use it or loose it, both in the brain and the body. Stop speaking the foreign language and it’s harder to communicate when you try to speak it again. Stop practicing yoga and your toes are suddenly further away when you bend over. So why do we view the feet differently? They’re part of our body, just like our brain and our toes. What’s different? Marketing. While “use it or loose it” is a great phrase to sell language learning programs and studio memberships, it doesn’t transfer to the shoe industry. In a society whose culture is always asking for the newest improvements in literally everything we buy, it’s in a company’s best interest to invent new technologies to sell us. New and improved ways to upgrade our life. Whether it’s a new material that better absorbs the impact, new laces that don’t come untied, or a pump to put air in the sole so you’re “walking on air” doesn’t really matter. There’s always something that’s newer and better than the last version and will make our lives even better. And the reviews of these products are very convincing. “I put them on and my pain disappeared immediately! I’ve been suffering from this for X years and in moments it’s completely gone!” Well, putting a cast on something does that. A broken leg or arm feels a lot better after it’s been realigned and set in the proper shape to recover. The difference is that we take the casts off our limbs once they’ve healed. But people rarely take their foot casts off. And when they do, their problems that were “cured” before come right back. Because they were never healed in the first place.
They were protected and supported by the fancy shoe that’s doing all the work the foot should be doing. I usually avoid the word “should”, but it’s necessary here because that’s what your feet and the rest of your body were literally designed to do. Walk and run. It’s no accident that we’re the only bipedal creature on earth. We’re not the strongest or the fastest, but man do we have smarts and endurance! Our ancestors spent all day, every day hunting and gathering food. Not being as fast or as strong as our prey meant that we wouldn’t win in a fight. So we played the long game. Stalking and following our prey for hours, over many miles, until they were weak from exhaustion and way easier to kill.
We have essentially the same body as our ancestors, but completely different lifestyles. Whereas they spent most of their time moving around to hunt/gather, we spend most of our time sitting. They had the flimsiest of shoes that only protected them from sharp rocks and sticks, we wear cushy casts that cover and restrain our feet almost all hours of the day. Our ancestors walked on uneven terrain, exposing themselves to a wide variety of surfaces. The majority of surfaces we walk on on are completely flat and smooth. So it only follows that taking these bodies designed for a tough life into the cozy one we live now is going to have some negative impacts.
But informing you of this is NOT in shoe company’s best interest. Their job it to make money by selling you something to help improve your life. Since NOT wearing their product is what will improve your life, they have to sell you extra hard on all the reasons that you really do need it, even if it’s not true. And it’s not just the shoe companies who are to blame. Doctors are in on it too. From orthopedic surgeons who fix bunions by breaking, repositioning, and screwing the big toe to podiatrists who sell custom orthotics that cost hundreds of dollars. They are there to make money. Surgery is much more costly than buying shoes with a wider toe box and toe spreaders to fix your bunions. Custom arch supports cost more than simple exercises to strengthen the hips that create the arch and the foot muscles that maintain it.
Like many things these days, you have to follow the money to find the source and reasoning behind the message you’re hearing. Big shoe companies make money from selling fashion for feet, creating weak, deformed structures. When you want to do something rugged or strenuous with your feet, like hike or play basketball, they sell you specialized support for your aching feet the fashion created. And so the cycle continues, offering newer band-aids to treat underlying weakness caused by the casts we affectionately call shoes.
The information about why barefoot is best and how to work towards that is readily available online and in books. Unfortunately, you won’t see flashy ads or shiney posters advertising this information. Those mediums are more expensive and reserved for shoe companies with advertising budgets. But you have the power to think around all the trickery. Just ask yourself, “why am I buying these shoes?” And then ask yourself, “why would my feet buy shoes?” Those answers will lead you to a healthier footwear choice.