The interruption came early in your life, researchers and physical therapists say. You didn’t have a choice in the matter. Mom and Dad made you. It seemed so harmless at the time. Who knew there would be long-term effects on your balance, strength, mobility, and overall health.
What was the innocent, yet detrimental act? Putting on shoes.
“Optimum foot development occurs in the barefoot environment,” wrote Lynn T. Staheli, MD, in the article “Shoes for Children: A Review” published in Pediatrics. This was back in 1991, long before tales of Tarahumara runners and research from Harvard’s professor of human evolutionary biology, Daniel Lieberman, PhD, helped spur the barefoot running movement.
Staheli, who also wrote several books on pediatric orthopedics (including the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal problems in kids) explained in the paper that “stiff and compressive footwear may cause deformity, weakness, and loss of mobility,” and that “shoe selection for children should be based on the barefoot model.”
You probably didn’t grown up wearing Vibram’s so-called “toe shoes,” especially considering that those kicks weren’t available until 2005. It’s also unlikely that you spent much time digging your toes in sand or grass either. That’s not your parents’ fault. Most pathways are not exactly foot-friendly, especially urban sidewalks covered in all kinds of debris (broken glass, sharp sticks and pebbles, animal feces, etc.). While it’s true, your soles need the protection, wearing shoes too often—even before you could walk—can affect you adversely in unexpected ways.
“We’re interrupting the development without allowing our children to develop the way nature intended them to – through crawling,” explains Sonima alignment expert Pete Egoscue. “People think that the sooner their kids walk, the smarter they are, but nothing could be further from the truth. The arches of the foot need all of that crawling. And then we put them in these little hard shoes that disrupt them even further.”
“When parents put these clunky shoes on kids at a young age, they are impeding foot and ankle activation. The kids rely on the crutch of a pair of shoes rather than the muscles around their feet, ankles and toes, which need to be developed,” agrees Joel Seedman, a Ph.D. in kinesiology and athlete trainer based near Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s probably one of the biggest mistakes you can make for a kid. And it’s going to affect them the rest of their lives.”
Seedman sees the results firsthand in the clients he coaches, and says the issues are far-reaching. “It’s going to affect their movement patterns, their posture, and how injury-prone they are. It’s also going to mess with their coordination and reaction time. Foot and ankle strength plays a huge role in your movement patterns.”
The effects aren’t just neuromuscular. “Take the lymphatic system,” Egoscue says. “It’s everywhere in your body. It’s just as pervasive as the circulatory system. And like the circulatory system, it has to pump against gravity. It drains upward, just like the veins. The structures act like little elevators to return waste back up your legs. They can’t do it without help. And what helps? Muscular contraction.”
The robust muscle action that takes place when your bare foot touches the ground helps the lymph nodes drain to their interlinking vessels. Egoscue says that’s just one example of how what’s going on with your feet impacts the rest of your body. Some others? “Balance, digestion, absorption, elimination and bowel movements—everything, really. The body is a unit,” Egoscue says.
One of the more worrisome effects of wearing shoes too often is a condition known as “toe crowding.” People with it appear to have very little space between their toes—or in some cases, the toes overlap. While this can be the result of a structural deformity, muscle weakness is also a main culprit. “It’s actually a common sign of aging,” Seedman says. “But we’re starting to see it in populations as young as 10 years old now.”
Shocking as this sounds, it also makes sense when you take a closer look at the shoes most people wear. By and large, shoes are tapered, coming to a point near the toes. “Most shoes constrict the toes together,” Seedman says, which, he adds, is the opposite of how the foot is supposed to work. “We need those toes to splay. Having that room in the toe-box is critical.”
Seedman’s advice? “Throughout the day, I tell athletes to work on lifting and spreading their toes—especially the big toe. You want to lift it medially or out.”
Try lifting and spreading your toes as Seedman describes, and hold the position for 30 seconds to a minute. The exercise will help you develop the toe flexors—the little muscles that help you lift the toes toward the shins. The strength of these muscles is a surprisingly good indicator of your overall health, recent studies show. Perform that movement as often as you’d like throughout the day.
Also, consider implementing this simple rule from Egoscue to improve the performance of your feet and ankles: “When you’re indoors, no shoes and no socks,” he says. “That’s where you start.” If doing this daily is not an option, try “Barefoot Saturday” or spending one day (any) a week without shoes. It’s a practice that Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist best known for his work with CrossFit, and other movement experts have also encouraged.
Let’s be clear that this does not mean you should never wear shoes. Shoes protect the feet from wear and tear. There are many instances where you absolutely should be wearing shoes. In fact, your ability to continue to operate in society probably requires you to wear shoes most of the time, lest you think your boss would be cool with you roaming the office halls with your pedicured toes al fresco.
If you’re looking to add minimalist footwear to your shoe collection, ease into it, especially if you’ve only worn traditional shoes til now. “Once you’re comfortable walking around the house without shoes, buy a straight-lasted shoe,” Egoscue recommends. A straight-lasted shoe is one that does not have an elevated heel. “Most athletic shoes lift your heel above your toes, which puts your foot at a mechanical advantage for running faster,” he says. “Shoes that keep your heels level with your toes are sometimes called ‘zero-drop’ shoes. Then work your way toward barefoot-style shoes.”