In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Zulu King Shaka trained his warriors to run barefoot across 50 miles of stony, South African bush. By the time Shaka was assassinated in 1828, the Zulu kingdom was the most powerful in southern Africa.
Even today, the Zulu people often walk without shoes. And it turns out, they have some of the healthiest feet in the world. A 2007 study compared the feet of Zulu, European, and Sotho peoples (a Bantu community also in southern Africa). From looking at their bone structures, scientists found the Zulu had the healthiest feet and the Europeans – who wear shoes frequently – had the worst...
So it seems that our shoes may be doing us more harm than good. If you're wearing shoes, you're walking wrong...
In 2008, Adam Sternbergh wrote in New York Magazine:
Shoes are bad. I don't just mean stiletto heels, or cowboy boots, or tottering espadrilles, or any of the other fairly obvious foot-torture devices into which we wincingly jam our feet. I mean all shoes. Shoes hurt your feet. They change how you walk. In fact, your feet—your poor, tender, abused, ignored, maligned, misunderstood feet—are getting trounced in a war that's been raging for roughly a thousand years: the battle of shoes versus feet.
And yet, some folks swear by their arch supports... insisting the foot was not designed to walk on hard, flat surfaces.
Arch supports fit into your shoe (or are built-in) and give the raised instep of your foot something to sit on. Effectively, they change the way your foot lands and pushes off of the ground ever so slightly... you redistribute your weight a little more to the outermost side of your sole.
But your feet have lots of small muscles and bones. They have evolved into the shape best suited for carrying you while barefoot.
As we age, our feet change, much like the rest of us.
We can develop flat feet, reduced tendon elasticity, or circulatory problems. These problems make balancing significantly more difficult.
Our feet may also develop issues like hammer toe, arthritis, nail thickening, reduced cushioning, and skin changes (dried skin and sizable growths on the skin of the feet)...
And many folks assume their feet stay the same size and shape. In fact, 60% of people have two totally different-sized feet. So it can be easy to make the mistake of buying the same size shoes – year after year – even after they eventually become the wrong size and shape. This also makes walking and balancing a challenge.
Also, going around the house in socks or slippers with smooth soles can spell trouble. Well-fitting shoes with nonslip soles can be a good investment.
But I'd prefer to simply take my shoes off...
Walking barefoot stretches the tendons and muscles in your feet. In doing so, your posture, balance, and foot strength improves. This also reduces pain and the chances of developing issues like plantar fasciitis, bunions, and hammer toe.
Walking barefoot allows your feet to breathe – preventing fungus from developing – and improves blood circulation.
Sometimes, You Do Need a Shoe
There are times when you need shoes to complete your everyday activities. Walking around the grocery store or gas station without shoes on is not encouraged. We live in towns and cities with trash and waste of all flavors on the ground. So often, the protection a shoe lends comes in handy.
A shoe's anatomy is generally divided into two parts... the top part, where your foot fits in, and the bottom part that you walk on.
The top part consists of the toe box, the vamp (where the laces are), and the counter (the heel). The bottom part is known as the shoe last, and the shoe last is divided into four parts – the insole, shank, midsole, and outsole.
When choosing a shoe, you have to think about your feet.
Expensive shoes typically promise more cushioning, but studies show runners using these kinds of shoes experience higher instances of injury than runners using basic shoes. Too much cushioning can actually weaken muscles in your feet and legs.
So next time you go to the store for a new pair of shoes, try out some of these tips and tricks to help pick out the best pair:
1. Trace your feet on a sheet of paper and take it to the store with you. When you find a shoe you'd like to try on, put the shoe on top of your feet tracings. If any part of your foot shows while the shoe is on top of it, don't even bother trying it on.
2. Wear the same type of socks that you'd normally wear in these shoes to the store when trying the shoes on. Stand and walk around in the shoes while in the store. Be sure to try walking on different surfaces and test the tread of the shoes. (So you know you won't slip!)
3. Shop for shoes in the afternoon. Your foot usually expands during the day, so the afternoon is a good time to get measured for width. Have someone in the store measure your feet each time you shop.
4. Buy shoes that give your toes a half inch of space to wiggle around. And always shop for your larger foot, opting for comfort over style.
I told Retirement Millionaire readers more than a decade ago that I like Vibram's five-fingered shoe. This shoe simulates the feeling of running in bare feet and can help strengthen leg muscles and improve balance.
I've been trying to wear flatter shoes and even jog in socks on the treadmill in our Baltimore office. I'm not used to it, but plenty of good evidence suggests the less shoe, the better.
So if you're going to wear a shoe, invest in a good one... But when you get the chance – take your shoes (and socks!) off, and simply walk around barefoot.
What We're Reading...
- Something different: Looking into the "Futures" exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 12, 2022