Take off your shoes. Is your big toe pointing inward? Are your three outside toes pointing back at it? For most aging men this is the case to some extent, and it’s an early sign of the development of bunions, plantar fasciitis, and a litany of other common foot problems that can jeopardize your ability to stay active as you age. What can you do about it? Start by not putting your shoes back on.
Medical professionals all over the country are starting to treat common foot ailments with simple, barefoot-based, non-invasive methods, and they’re seeing remarkable results. It’s all science based on our natural skeletal system and the realization that modern shoes possess characteristics that prevent the foot from functioning as it should.
Heel elevation, arch support, and narrow, tapered toe boxes are all common design features of modern shoes, and each plays a role in preventing your foot from functioning like nature intended.
Sure, arch support props up your arch, but you’re already supposed to have one that works by itself, and forcing it into that position actually prevents you from strengthening it.
Heel elevation raises the back of your foot to put you in a foreward-leaning athletic position, but ends up making people strike with their heel first, rather than the ball of the foot, putting more stress on the joints in the feet and legs than is necessary and shortening the muscles in the back of the lower leg.
That tapered toe box might make your feet look thin, but it squeezes your toes into an unnatural position, causing the development of bunions, crooked toes, and other problems that often render the toes useless in old age.
Born to Run, a book by Christopher McDougall, was published in 2009 and unofficially marked the beginning of the barefoot running craze.
He told the story of the Tarahumara, a Mexican tribe with members who are able to run ultra distances (over 100 miles) without suffering the injuries common to most runners who aren’t even getting close to that distance.
Instead of lacing up the “state of the art” running shoes that most Americans wear, the Tarahumara wear thin, completely flat, rubber huarache-syle sandals cut from old car tires. While they aren’t officially barefoot, their feet aren’t impeded by the design characteristics of conventional shoes.
Dozens of footwear companies have sprouted up as a part of the movement, selling everything from similarly-styled minimalist sandals to competitive running shoes.
While a lot of shoe manufacturers market “minimalist” footwear under the same guise, many still possess the harmful characteristics of popular footwear, but simply have a thinner sole.
To be a true, barefoot-style, minimalist shoe, your foot should be able to act like a bare foot inside the shoe. It’s that simple. The shoe should be completely flat, possess no artificial arch support, and have a toe box that’s wide enough to allow the toes to splay properly.
Being a barefoot runner doesn’t mean you tear-up the bottom of your feet on the sidewalk for five miles, it means you wear a barefoot-style shoe and allow your feet to support your body like they’re supposed to.
For runners who are used to wearing conventional footwear, there’s a transition period involved that most likely requires an adjustment in gait.
Rather than striking with the heel first, which is promoted by shoes with an elevated heel, you’re forced to land closer to the ball of your foot as our ancestors without shoes would have done.
It takes time for your calves to lengthen, and it’s not uncommon to feel unusually sore in the lower legs after your first time out with barefoot-styled shoes. The process takes time and patience. So is it really worth it? Let’s get into it. Here’s five reasons aging men should ditch their traditional sneakers for something new.
One – Circulation
The fascia in the bottom of the foot runs from the toe bones to the heel, and wraps beneath and around the heel to the achilles tendon.
When your foot is squeezed and propped up by a shoe with arch support, the fascia is compressed and doesn’t get the necessary bloodflow.
The result: your fascia degenerates and actually starts to die. This has led a group of physicians to propose the renaming of plantar fasciitis to platar fasciosis. The fascia isn’t injured or inflamed, it’s dying from a lack of blood flow due to malpositioning.
Similarly, when the toes are frequently squeezed at the ends of the toes, often over the course of a person’s entire life, the metatarsal bones narrow, the toes turn inwards, and the toes don’t receive adequate bloodflow.
This results in a variety of foot and toe ailments that can cripple people in old-age. Give your feet space, let blood circulate, and you’ll be able stay active longer. It’s common sense.
Two – Balance and Posture
Balance is a major key to preventing both acute and chronic injuries in the legs and feet. When the toes aren’t allowed to splay, the function of the foot is restricted to the that of a lever.
You can still run, but try balancing on one foot for an extended amount of time without using your toes. It’s very difficult, and seems non-sensical. If the toes aren’t there to help with balance, why do we even need them?
When the toes can’t splay, the entire tendon, ligament, and muscular chain from the feet to the upper legs is effected.
Fascia is inhibitted from doing its normal job, tendons are shortened and become unnecessarily tight where they should be loose and loose where they should be tight, and if you’re wearing shoes with heel elevation or toe spring, this effects the alignment of the ankle bone, the tibia in the knee joint, and even the alignment of your hips.
Your posture often suffers from the misalignment, and chronic injuries develop over time. To stand tall you need a solid foundation, and it starts with the feet.
Three – Injury Prevention
As a teenager I wore conventional shoes and sprained my ankles all the time. Whether playing basketball or football, my pregame ritual involved a visit to the trainer to get taped-up.
In college, my baseball career ended because of a nagging knee injury that no amount of physical training could fix. Only after transitioning to barefoot style shoes did my knee stop flaring up, and only after visiting a natural foot-health promoting doctor did I understand why—alignment.
When your heel is raised unnaturally, the alignment of the tibia is effected, and in my case it was causing severe pain any time my knee came close to being straightened while bearing weight. In the eight years since, my knee has gotten progressively better. At the moment I experience no pain, regardless of the amount of activity.
Aside from alignment, wearing barefoot-style shoes allows you to strengthen the muscles and tendons around the ankles and knees, thus strengthening the entire structure.
Those ankle sprains I used to suffer from—all but gone. I can’t even count how many times I’ve stepped on a root while trail-running, or stepped on someone’s foot playing basketball and felt that all-too-familiar sting associated with the roll.
But now, instead of leaving the court or walking home, I walk it off and get back to what I was doing. My ankles are stronger because I’ve removed the artificial support system and allowed them to strengthen naturally. What sprains easier, a weak tendon or a strong one?
Four – Confidence
Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution led to the musculoskeletal system we have today. Why do we think we can make it better by providing an artifical support system?
When your feet are resting like a bare foot inside your shoes, your tendons and bones are aligned like nature intended, and you can be confident that the chain of muscles throughout the lower body are functioning to their fullest potential.
The transition takes time, and most doctors recommend wearing true barefoot-style shoes for short periods of time at first. But if you commit to the change and allow the necessary time for it to happen, you can move forward confident that you’re setting yourself up to stay active longer in life.
Five – Longevity
We’ve all seen the old dudes who have to shuffle their feet to walk. They’re usually wearing thick-soled orthopedic shoes, and you can bet they have some sort of custom-molded insert inside them.
They can’t get out of bed without slipping into their orthopedic slippers because walking barefoot is downright painful.
They’re at a higher risk of falling because of a lack of balance, and have to be helped up because their knees are all torn up (if not already replaced) because of misalignment. You don’t want to be that guy, do you?
Take the time to let your feet start functioning as they’re designed to, and you’ll set yourself up to age more gracefully.
Whether you want to play pick-up basketball, run marathons, or be able to play catch with your grandkids into old age, it’s a transition you should start making now.
Feet are (obviously) the foundation for active pursuits. If you care about staying active as you age and want to get ahead of the game, there’s no better place to start.
(If you’re suffering from one of the foot problems I’ve mentioned, or if you simply need more science to be convinced, check out Northwest Foot and Ankle or Naturalfootgear.com, two of the leading promoters of barefoot-style treatment methods. Each site has a plethora of information regarding each specific condition, sells barefoot-style shoes and inserts, and has medical professionals ready to answer any questions you might have.)
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