Do you deal with chronic aches and pains in your knees, back, neck, or hips?
What if I told you that those nagging pains aren’t a normal part of aging but rather could have something to do with the shoes you’re wearing?
Today, we’re digging into the history of modern footwear, how their evolution has contributed to a society with weak feet and chronic pain, and tips for what you can do to start regaining your foot strength.
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A Brief History of Modern Footwear
Shoes have been a part of our ancestral history for thousands of years. As I learned from my interview with Galahad Clark (a seventh-generation cobbler and descendant of the famous Clark Shoes family), the earliest shoes were made over 100,000 years ago.
The original purpose of shoes was to protect the foot from harsh weather, and they were made from raw materials like animal hides, leaves, and grass that were flexible and allowed the feet to move naturally.
From ancient Greek and Roman empires to the Medieval era, the Industrial Revolution, and all the way up to now, shoes have gone from minimalist and practical to technical and specialized. They were even considered a status symbol in some cultures.
An excruciatingly painful practice out of China known as foot binding is an extreme example of this. It involved breaking and binding young girls’ feet to make them look smaller and more feminine. In the process, these poor girls’ feet became so weak and deformed that they were unable to move freely or walk long distances.
Foot binding was eventually outlawed in China, and of course, it’s an extreme example of foot manipulation.
But it’s important to understand that high heels, pointed dress shoes, and cushioned sneakers still persist and are providing a version of foot binding of their own by squishing our toes, limiting our mobility, and manipulating our feet from their natural state.
What’s even more confusing is that these shoes are marketed as “fashionable” despite making our feet weak and deformed, which has downstream effects on the rest of the body. But since the pain is not super noticeable at first, many people don’t assume they’re doing long-term damage.
Now that we know when modern footwear took a turn for the worst let’s talk about the why.
5 of the Biggest Issues with Modern-Day Footwear:
Why are modern shoes so bad for our health? And how do they contribute to chronic pain?
The next five points should answer these questions for you.
1. Shoes weaken your feet. Sneakers are designed to be “comfortable,” with arch support, thick padding, orthotics, and rubber soles to aid in shock absorption. According to Galahad and other natural footwear experts, however, the foot is designed to absorb 50 percent of the shock in every step.
By coddling our feet, our muscles and tendons aren’t being used as much (and what you don’t use, you lose!), which weakens the feet and forces our knees, hips, and back to absorb the shock. This unnatural movement can, over time, put a great deal of stress on the body and contribute to chronic pain.
2. They scrunch your toes. Pointed-toe shoes force our toes into a cramped space so that they’re being squished and pressed on top of each other. This severely limits the movement of your big toe and can lead to bunions over time. That’s right. Confining our toes in modern shoes can lead to bunions, they’re not genetic like many people suspect.
Minimalist shoes aren’t a solution to bunions, but they can help reduce pain as foot health improves. If bunions stay the same or get worse over time after switching to a shoe with a wider toe box, it’s a good idea to consult with a professional for solutions.
3. They don’t allow your big toe to pivot. Your big toe has a BIG job. It helps you to grip the ground to pivot and shift your weight while you’re walking, running, and standing. Allowing the big toe to adjust and pivot in its natural range of motion is also super important for balance (2).
4. They cause balance issues. When our big toe is confined by modern shoes, it throws off our balance. Have you ever seen an older person wearing orthotic shoes struggling to walk? Typically orthotics are used to support weak, deformed feet. However, arch support and cushioning limit their already-impaired movement, which may lead to a greater risk of falls and fractures.
5. They don’t allow the natural building of your own arch. Finally, we put shoes on our kids’ feet at an early age, which can impact arch development. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies not wear shoes until they start walking, and even then, barefoot is recommended for optimal foot development (3,4).
When we spend most of our time in sneakers, our arches can’t develop or become strong. What’s more, some shoes’ arches are so high that they can contribute to the development of flat fleet.
1. Walk barefoot more often. The first and easiest thing you can do to start strengthening your feet is to walk barefoot. I know it sounds simple, but the act of having your bare foot make contact with the ground uses the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your feet, supporting foot strength, flexibility, and stronger arches.You don’t have to go far; just start off by not wearing shoes in your home. It’s crazy to me how many people still wear shoes at home instead of walking barefoot. Not only is that better for your feet, but it will help you keep a cleaner home.
If you have a good handle on that, you can take things up a notch by going barefoot outside when you get the opportunity. That might mean being barefoot more often in your backyard or even at a park on the weekends. In addition to being great for your feet, you’re getting the benefits of being outside and the anti-inflammatory elements of being grounded.
2. Switch to minimalist shoes. Minimalist shoes are super flexible, have a wide toe box so your toes can spread apart comfortably, are lightweight, have a thin sole, and have zero heel drop (the difference in elevation between the toe and heel). Transitioning to minimalist shoes might be challenging for some due to weak foot muscles, leading to potential discomfort. It’s essential to progress gradually, allowing your feet to strengthen and adjust, which may take a few weeks.
My favorite minimalist shoes are Vivobarefoot, and not just because I had Galahad on the podcast. I invited him on because I’m genuinely such a fan of his shoes! (Shout out to my dear friend, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, who was the first to tell me about them.)
There are many other great minimalist shoes out there. I haven’t experimented with other brands (there are a lot!), but here’s a complete list my friend Katy Bowman put together by style, age, activities, etc.
I absolutely despise wearing formal dress shoes, but I love spending time with my friends and family. That’s why, for special occasions, I’ll wear my fancy shoes for pictures and then change into something more comfortable to sit and chat or dance in.
Nowadays, it’s becoming more and more common to have flip-flops for guests to change into at big events. I love this trend and hope that it becomes more mainstream. And if you’re going to a wedding, talk to someone and see if this could be an option. You never know! You could save yourself and other guests a lot of pain!
My co-writer, Taylor, is getting married this month outside on a farm, and she’s encouraging her guests to go barefoot at the reception and for dancing. (More of this, please!)
Here’s to your health,