Barefoot shoes: A new perspective on joint health & the role shoes play on your feet
Humans are one of the few species who have mastered walking on two feet as their primary method of movement, attributed mainly to the foot (Franklin et al, 2015). The foot has evolved to have 26 bones, 33 joints and 19 muscles (Franklin et al, 2015). The bones are arranged to create a series of arches that transmit the body's forces.
This design is similar to a raft or snowshoe, where the weight is distributed evenly throughout the foot. In particular, three arches make up the foot’s main “support” systems, and they are the transverse, medial and longitudinal arches that make a “tripod” for the weight to distribute evenly. With such a complex structure involving many moving parts seamlessly operating to promote something perceived so simply as moving, we often overlook how important healthy feet are to our movement and the negative impact that improper footwear can have on them.
Footwear has been vital to humans for centuries and played an integral role in both our ancestor’s and now our everyday lives. Anthropological evidence suggests that footwear became more prevalent among humans 40,000 years ago (Franklin et al., 2015). Although shoes keep our feet protected and safe, a paradox arises: the more protection and support provided by footwear, the less our feet have to work. Therefore, the foot and ankle muscles become weakened and subject to issues over time.
Moreover, to a large extent, modern footwear places a greater emphasis on fashion and aesthetics over form and function. Some significant culprits are heels, dress shoes and running shoes with lots of cushioning and narrow toe boxes. In fact, research supports that wearing a heel higher than 5 cm over a 2 year period has significant, adverse effects on the muscle-tendon unit of the ankle (Franklin et al., 2015).
Further, and more relevant to this blog post, is that modern athletic footwear has increased sole thickness, which limits the foot’s ability to maintain its functional properties (Franklin et al., 2015). This is of particular importance to the health of older populations’ feet as over two-thirds of older populations’ feet are more comprehensive than the footwear they are wearing, thereby causing their feet to narrow and restrict their ability to provide proper support, which can ultimately result in creating all sorts of foot issues such as bunions, hammer toes, fallen arches and problems with the big toe.
“Research supports that wearing a heel higher than 5 cm over a 2 year period has significant, negative effects on the muscle-tendon unit of the ankle.”
Our feet were designed to be wide in the forefoot to provide increased stability and dexterity while walking. This means that our toes should be able to splay out and “grip” the ground as we move and stabilize. In addition, having a wide forefoot creates a strong foot arch, which is essential to whole-body mechanics as the foot sets the main contact point between the ground and the body.
D’aou et al. observed that habitual barefoot walkers displayed a larger plantar foot area and significantly reduced peak plantar pressures at the heel compared to shoe wearers (Franklin et al., 2015). The advantage of having a wider forefoot is a broader support base, promoting ideal joint mechanics.
So given the potential benefits of walking barefoot and the negative implications of wearing a tight-toe box and cushioned shoes, how can one start to incorporate these benefits? One way is purchasing a zero-drop, minimalistic shoe like the vivofoot shoe I show in the video. When lighter, zero drop and minimalist footwear is worn compared to traditional gym shoes, the minimalistic shoe offers similar walking mechanics to when one walks barefoot.
“D’aou et al., observed that habitual barefoot walkers displayed a larger plantar foot area, significantly reduced peak plantar pressures at the heel compared to shoe wearers (Franklin et al, 2015). The advantage of having a wider forefoot is a wider base of support which promotes ideal joint mechanics.”
When selecting a minimalist shoe, keep the following things in mind: It is important to realize that minimalist shoes may not be the right shoe for you at all. Situations where I would not recommend you to wear them, are if you have advanced foot issues requiring orthotics or trauma to the foot.
For those that want to try out minimalist shoes, it’s best to gradually work into them as the foot is not used to being “uncagged” from traditional shoes. Therefore, slowly work into the shoes over time by using them more often. I say this because many people are used to the cushioning and extra support of standard gym shoes, and jumping to a minimalist shoe can cause excessive joint loading and pain in the lower body.
When selecting a minimalist shoe, ensure the toe box is wide, so the toes are free to move unrestricted. On that note, it is also best to size up to ensure the toes do not bang against the ends. Moreover, make sure to purchase a flexible, zero-drop shoe. Zero drop means that there is no heel rise, therefore promoting a more natural walking pattern.
I have listed some potential options below to check out! I hope you found this blog post helpful, and check out the accompanying video discussing barefoot shoes’ benefits in more detail!
Lukes picks for minimalist shoes:
Franklin, S., Grey, M. J., Heneghan, N., Bowen, L., & Li, F. X. (2015). Barefoot vs common footwear: a systematic review of the kinematic, kinetic and muscle activity differences during walking. Gait & posture, 42(3), 230-239.