(*Going barefoot does increase odds of stepping on something sharp or stubbing toes)
A former colleague of mine, Lou Schuler, who runs a strength-training blog, recently posted a great note about the emerging evidence that shoes are one of the worst ideas man has ever come up with. In his post, he cited a lengthy story published last month in New York Magazine, which talked about the detrimental effects that over-padded and over-supported shoes are having on our society. In it, the writer points out that shoes are often the source of many chronic back and knee problems, in addition to causing a litany of foot problems (think stiletto heels). But, my favorite part of the story involved the writer testing out a new range of minimalist shoes on the streets of Manhattan.
After wearing the (Vivo) Barefoots for a while, though, I found I really liked them, precisely because you can feel the ground -- you can tell if you're walking on cobblestones, asphalt, a manhole, or a subway grate. (Striding along that nubby yellow warning strip on the subway platform feels like a foot massage.) Of course, it's not often that you walk around New York, see something on the ground, and think, I wish I could feel that with my foot. But this kind of walking is a revelation. Not only does it change your step, but it changes your perceptions. As you stroll, your perception stops being so horizontal -- i.e., confined more or less to eye level -- and starts feeling vertical or, better yet, 360 degrees. You have a new sense of what's all around you, including underneath.
I’d always known about the health aspects of going barefoot (stronger toes, better load displacement, and of course less chance of athlete's foot) but this was the first time someone opened me up to the idea that a more visceral experience with the world is available to those going barefoot or wearing what are essentially moccasins. Never before had I come across someone putting the idea of going barefoot into such a positive light. All I’d ever heard was something along the lines of, “It hurts a lot at first, but then it just feels right.” And that was that.
I’d previously touched on the connection between healthy feet and a higher quality of life in old age, and this story definitely adds credence to my idea that trotting around the house in shoeless feet is worthwhile. It also makes me feel good about my decision to make a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors my choice for workout shoes. There’s as close to a non-cushioned, support-free shoe I can find that still offers some modicum of protection from bashing my toes into stuff.
After reading about the unbelievable “connection” to the world offered by a thin and flexible sole, I tracked down the pair of Vibram Five Fingers that were hiding in my closet and put them on to go walk my dogs. Yep, after a year of owning them, I was going to get over my fear of neighborly scorn and be seen in public with my feet shod in the Vibrams. But just before I got out the door, I heard my wife call out, “You’re not going to wear those things outside, are you?” Her tone implied that this was not a question, but a command.And like a good spouse, I obeyed, much to my feet’s dismay.
UPDATE: My wife did go out of town for a day, so I broke out the Vibrams. They were great, although my feet got really cold over the course of a morning hike with the dogs. Interesting discovery: Instead of slipping down a steep and muddy pitch due to the Vibram's deck-shoe like tread, my toes spread wide and gripped the ground like a lizard. That makes sense; our toes are nature's original lug soles.
Grant Davis has spent the last decade writing and editing articles about health, fitness, and nutrition. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.