Your Health - the cost of using shoes

Leonardo da Vinci famously observed that "The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art." No-one would attempt shoddy modifications to improve the Mona Lisa, but that's exactly what we do when we put shoes on our feet. Fashion that interferes with the function is destroying of our own masterpieces of engineering.

Shoes, as well as depriving the mind of mental stimulus and environmently awareness, cause numberous physical ailments. Arthritis, plantar fasciitis, hallux valgus (bunions), bad posture, flat feet, hammer toe, morton's neuroma, corns, calluses, athlete's foot, ingrown nails, contact dermatitis and blisters to name some common ones.

  1. Cleanliness: Bacteria and Fungi
  2. Fallen Arches (Flat Feet)
  3. Bunions
  4. Posture
  5. Knees and Joints
  6. Plantar Fasciitis

Bacteria and Fungi

It's natural that contact with our environment picks up a little dirt. However the perception that closed shoes can keep the feet clean is not true. Fungi, such as Tinea Cruris that causes athlete’s foot, usually live harmlessly on our skin and in our environment. The natural balance of our environment keeps them under control. However shoes can create a warm, moist environment that is perfect for bacteria and fungi to propagate, particularly between the toes and under the nails. They feed on moist soft skin and perspiration, and excrete substances (such as isovaleric acid) that cause feet to smell of sulphur / ammonia like aromas. The skin usually does a pretty good job at keeping them out of our body, but it is a falicy to believe them to be clean simply because they do not appear soiled to the naked eye.

Wounds, however, are significantly more dangerous for those who wear shoes than those who are barefoot. A study* of foot puncture wounds revealed that far fewer barefoot patients were likely to suffer infections than shod patients. The two most common infections were staphylococcus aureus and pseudomonas aeruginosa. While both barefoot and shod patients suffered from staphylococcus, no barefoot patients suffered pseudomonas infections at all. The authors concluded "These data seem to support the theory that pseudomonas aeruginosa does not grow on puncture objects, but rather is intimately associated with shoe gear."
* Laughlin TJ, Armstrong DG, Caporusso J, Lavery LA. Soft tissue and bone infections from puncture wounds in children. West J Med 1997 Feb; 166:126-128

Wearing shoes thins and softens the plantar skin, making it vulnerable to infection, while living barefoot toughens and thickens your skin, and keeps it healthy and dry, making it resistent to microbial infection.

Fallen Arches (flat feet)

The arches of the foot are the body's suspension system, that absorbs shock and distributes weight to the three weight-bearing areas of the foot, enabling you to walk over uneven terrain. Flat feet is the result of lax muscles in the medial longitudinal arch. What causes this muscle wastage? Lack of use, caused by unnecessary arch-support in shoes. The cure is using the muscles by walking barefoot.

Bunions and tendons

The shape of modern shoes is dictated by fashion, rather than engineered to contain a human foot. If you have to "break in" a new pair of shoes, you are not changing the shape of the shoes so much as breaking your feet to fit the shape of the shoes. (If new shoes already seem to fit well, it is likely that your feet have already been damaged inline with current fashions!) However, human feet are not symetrical and point, and our longest toe is not the middle one.

Unfortunately, This is not news. In 1905 a famous study by Dr. Phil Hoffmann* compared the feet of people who had never worn shoes with those who wore them habitually. The pictures from the study, below, but those below clearly demonstrate the effect of placing casts on the foot.
* Actually Sherlock Holmes observed this before Dr. Hoffman. In "The Sign of Four", published in 1890, Holmes & Watson on investigating a break-in observe from the shape of footprints in the dust that the thief had never worn shoes. Dr. Hoffmann's study can be found here.

⇧ The photo on the left is of someone who has never worn shoes. This is the natural shape of the foot. Note the straightness and separaration of the toes, and that the widest part of foot is at the toes. The axis of each toe extrapolated backward connects to the centre of the heel. The center picture is of the shape of shoes popular at the time (not much has changed there), and the right picture shows the effect on the feet of their owner.

⇩ The first photo below is of two plaster casts: The first is that of someone who had always lived barefoot, and the second is the now damaged foot of the same person after having spent a few months wearing shoes.
The tendons connected to each toe should be in a straight line from their respective muscles. They pass between the sesamoid bones at the top of each toe. The effect of bending the toe out of shape is to make the tendons rub against the sesamoids - rather like carpal tunnel syndrome for the toes.


Gait and Posture

Raised heels effect our posture, causing curvature in the spine. We may compensate with our ankles to an extent, but you are much more likely to walk with a straight back when you're barefoot. The diagram to the right, and a detailed explaination are found in this excellent article “Why Shoes Make Normal Gait Impossible”.

Knees & Joints

Most shoe wearers impact their locked knees with each step they take. They get used to doing it, so even do so when they first walk barefoot.

Seasoned barefooters do not impact their knees each time they take a step. This is partly due to not fully locking the knees during each stride, but although the heel may touch the ground first, they roll their weight onto the front part of their foot unless they feel something bad, in which case it's instinctive to keep the weight back on the heel.

It's impossable to roll your in shoes with heels, as explained in this image from New York Magazine.

Barefooters use their toes to grip the ground, and to push off each time they take a step. Shoe makers try to allow this to happen with flexible soles on the front of shoes, that are usually lifted slightly. However these bring other problems that I'll let someone more knowledgable that I introduce.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar Fasciitis is crippling pain in the sole of your foot, often when you just step out of bed in the morning. Dr. Ray McClanahan


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