Whether or not you’re a shoe ‘person,’ there’s no denying they can make or break your day. But did you know they can seriously affect your overall health? Think of your feet like the foundation of your body. If they are strong, well-balanced and supported, the whole ‘house’ of your health stays upright. But if they’re stabilizing a natural imbalance while also balancing poor posture and ill-fitting shoes, suddenly, there’s a whole lot of stress coming from a very small area.
Bare-ing your sole
The number one cause of foot issues is footwear - which can also cause ankle, knee, hip and/or lower back issues. From baby shoes to high heels, we’re forced into covering our feet from an early age. As we age, shoes tend to get more restrictive and cause further imbalance. That’s why in my practice, I encourage patients of all ages to go barefoot or wear wide, open toe shoes like sandals or Crocs.
Podiatry and orthotics rarely exist in cultures where bare feet are the norm, because they don’t suffer from common foot problems like bunions, plantar fasciitis, morton's neuromas, achilles tendonitis and hammer toes. That’s because barefoot practices make our feet tough and strong, allowing them to develop naturally without restriction.
Not only is going barefoot beneficial for your feet - it’s beneficial for your overall health. Our culture in general is experiencing a major disconnect from our environment, which has major health implications. Shoes inhibit the ability to use our feet like a ground wire - passing negative energy to the ground and receiving positive energy from the earth. The practice of walking barefoot on natural surfaces invites positive energy into your body, reduces stress by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the muscles in your feet and improves your ability to heal from the inside.
A July 2018 article from The Washington Post* offers scientific support for that claim, describing how researchers have discovered a variety of health benefits from the practice of grounding, or going barefoot. Try it for yourself - next time you get a chance to be barefoot on grass, dirt or a cool stream, close your eyes and take 12-15 slow deep breaths. You’ll likely feel instant changes in your physiology. (In the winter, you can see similar changes by just filling a tray with sand and do barefoot exercises for 3-5 minutes, 3-4 times a week.)
Healing from the ground up
Once I understood the dramatic influence the feet have over the rest of the body, I dedicated my professional life to healing people from the ground up. Most of us have asymmetrical bodies and have a tendency to stand on one leg more than the other. That imbalance drives stress up one side of the body, affecting our running, walking and standing. Because of this imbalance, I was told early in my career that going barefoot was bad for the feet, and that, “Everyone should be wearing hard custom orthotics, prescribed only by podiatrists, and any major issues could be addressed with surgery, medication and rest.” Although I respect the opinions of most health professionals, I questioned this logic and started down my own path of research. I found a different story - and a different solution - focused on building relationships and addressing the whole body holistically. When I see issues in patients, it’s never just related to constrictive non-functional footwear, but also includes a lack of nutrition, inflammation, glute weakness from sitting and/or a lack of daily, full-body activity. I work with patients to address these issues as well as creating my own custom orthotics to help rehabilitate and undo damage created by bad footwear, muscle imbalances and weaknesses.
For the past 30 years, I have used my practice to treat patients in any profession or participating in any activity that stresses the lower back, hips, knees, feet and ankles. This includes athletes, seniors, diabetics, teachers, nurses, waitresses, construction, factory workers and military personnel. In 2010, I worked with a world class tennis player after foot surgery. After receiving images of her feet and a video of her walking, standing and doing squats, I worked with her physical therapist to create a variety of different orthotics. A rehabilitative insole was developed for rehab exercises, a less corrective pair was developed for tennis practice and a third went in her indoor slippers for her time at home. She went on to earn four Olympic gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics. Though this case was extreme in terms of the number of orthotics and rehab progression, over 90% of my clients get the same results with one pair of orthotics that generally cost them less than $200.
One triathlete from Michigan wrote this testimonial:
About 10 years ago my friend Adriano Rosa made me a pair of running inserts for my triathlon running and biking shoes. I STILL use those inserts. They were a game changer for me, keeping my legs fresh and preventing injuries, even while training for and racing in the Ironman.
Getting the shoe to fit
With hundreds of models to choose from, finding the right athletic footwear can be confusing. The number one question I hear is, “What is the best shoe for my feet?” Pronation, supination, neutral, cushion, stability, motion control, zero drop – how do you choose? Most shoe stores do a fantastic job of selling shoes that feel good in the store, but after a few long runs the aches and pains start appearing. In fact, about 60% of my clients come to me wearing the wrong shoes. Why is this?
It’s common to have two different feet, which causes improper alignment and aggravation. Excessive cushion actually exaggerates the imbalances and makes them worse, and too little cushion can add stress to the foot, create fatigue and even cause bruising. If you have no injuries, I always recommend choosing shoes that are much like your natural foot shape - rounded, narrow and low rearfoot outsole with wide toe boxes. Having more room in the forefoot will allow you toes to plantar flex, grip and expand. With athletic shoes, I lean more towards stable neutral shoes with full contact with the ground, especially the midfoot. My clients have far more success with single density EVA throughout with semi-firm midsole, 8mm or less of toe drop for road and 4mm or less for trails.
However, one of the biggest stressors for feet come in the form of women’s casual and dress shoes. Frankly, fashion is destroying women’s feet - great for the podiatrist’s pockets, but not for yours. Long days in pointed toe high heels can cause irreversible foot issues, and botched surgeries can permanently ruin your feet. That said, there are some wonderful footwear options that are fashionable AND friendly for your feet. Similar to athletic shoes, look for the natural shape of the foot, and never force your toes into constrictive toe boxes or heels over 2”. Low wedge heels or flats are the way to go, and I’ve found excellent options in brands like Naot, Dansko, Born, Clarks, Rockport, Earth, Hush Puppies and Finn Comfort.
The sooner you address foot issues, the greater your chances of correcting any issues and improving your overall health. And much like every person has a different fingerprint, each person's foot problems are generally very personalized - and require personalized treatment. With decades of experience in correcting foot issues and creative custom insoles, I’m passionate about helping men and women achieve better foot health - and better health overall. If you notice nagging foot problems, feel free to reach out to me for a free consult.
*For more information, read “Could walking barefoot on grass improve your health? Some research suggests it can.” published in July 2018 by The Washington Post.