The human foot was described by Leonardo da Vinci as ‘a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art’. Containing 26 bones and 33 different joints, feet are a miracle of biomechanical engineering. Today, because far too many people think that feet exist for the sole purpose of displaying footwear, these remarkable appendages often languish for hours on end in hot, dark, constrictive shoes.
Like the body itself, feet need exercise and the opportunity to experience a full range of motion. Feet are also specialised instruments of touch. The nerve endings in feet, when stimulated by sharp or rough objects, cause reflex muscle contraction to counter irritation. This cycle of sensory stimulation and reflex muscle contraction is thought to improve the strength of the foot and leg muscles. Wearing shoes all the time diminishes these contractions, weakening muscles over time. There are other problems with shoes as well. For example:
- tight, poorly fitting shoes can raise the risk of fallen arches, bunions and corns and ingrown toenails;
- trainers can make feet sweaty, smelly and prone to fungal infections;
- evidence suggests that high heels can encourage poor posture and low backache and raise the risk of osteoarthritic knees in women; and
- research shows that among children who wear trainers the rate of flat-footedness is three times higher than among those who regularly go barefoot.
In ancient disciplines such as Chinese and Indian medicine it is held that the feet contain a ‘map’ of the body. There are more than 7,000 nerve endings in the feet and these have interconnections through the spinal cord and brain with all areas of the body. This is the basis of the practice of reflexology, which uses specific pressure points on the feet to relieve problems elsewhere, including backache and abdominal pain. In ancient times we would have stimulated these reflexes naturally by walking barefoot over rocks, stones and rough ground.
Today, anybody interested in the benefits of walking barefoot might turn to refl exology shoes with dimpled insoles or reflexology mats that mimic the undulating uneven surface of cobblestones. Last year, a study on the health benefits of ‘cobblestone-mat walking’ published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity linked the practice to significant improvements in mental and physical wellbeing with older adults, including reductions in blood pressure and significantly reduced daytime sleepiness and pain.
The fashion industry has paid attention to such studies. In one of its largest marketing campaigns ever, Nike has introduced the Nike Free: a trainer that promotes a more natural physiological use of the feet during sport. The trainer helps strengthen leg muscles, and the wider range of motion in your feet will translate into better gait and stronger, more flexible feet and ankles – all for around £60.
In the past, well-known international athletes have successfully competed barefoot, most notably Zola Budd-Pieterse, the South African long-distance runner who represented the UK in the 1980s, and the late Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia. While few professional runners compete shoeless these days, many train barefoot, and good evidence exists to show that toned, flexible muscles are less vulnerable to problems like Achilles tendonitis or heel pain.
Laboratory studies also show that running barefoot requires about 4 per cent less energy than running with shoes, and that it is associated with substantially fewer injuries of the ankle and lower leg.
Nike TV ads feature the athletes Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb and Adam Goucher running in a variety of environments and feature the tag line ‘run barefoot’. But if the experience of running barefoot that Nike Frees replicate is so good for you, why not find a grassy surface and just do it? Chances are your feet won’t fail you.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005
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