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In our modern civilized society, walking around barefoot is something we do in our backyard. But when college professors start showing up in class without shoes, you know something unusual must be going on. You’re about to learn something new—the wonders of foot design.
Class had just begun, but there was more commotion than usual. After a few minutes, a student in the front row raised her hand and blurted out, “I’m sorry, but I have to stop you, Dr. Ross. Where are your shoes?”
It was the first time I had taught class barefoot. I stopped my lecture briefly to explain that I had just finished reading The Barefoot Book by Daniel Howell, a fellow biology professor at Liberty University.
I must confess, though, that I originally didn’t want to read the book. It was my wife’s idea. I dutifully got a copy from my weirdo colleague, a man who never wears shoes, and brought it home. But after I read about all the ways shoes cause foot problems, it dawned on me: God had created us barefoot in the Garden of Eden. Of course the bare foot works best on its own. We were made that way. Once that truth sank in, my shoes flew off, and I joined Daniel in the small but growing ranks of barefooters.
When Daniel’s book came out in the summer of 2010, it caused quite a stir, landing him in the pages of The Washington Post and Popular Science magazine. He was interviewed on MSNBC and The Today Show, along with dozens of radio and print outlets around the world. On campus, students ran with the idea, hosting “barefoot Fridays” in some of the dorms. Daniel started leading students on barefoot hikes or runs throughout the semester. His book won ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year and was translated into Italian and Korean. A Korean television crew spent three days at Liberty University interviewing Daniel for a documentary. Everyone was interested in losing their shoes.
Unlike my experience, Daniel’s foray into the world of “barefooting” advanced slowly. It started with barefoot running in 2006, followed by barefoot hiking. After years of suffering injuries (shin and ankle pain) as a shoed jogger, he experienced the benefits of shoelessness firsthand (or first-foot). As a human anatomist, he decided to explore the shoe-foot relationship in greater depth. Like me, it was Daniel’s students—always curious about his growing independence from shoes—who forced him to think critically about how the human foot really works.
As he dug deeper, he discovered that our feet are incredibly complex machines, clearly designed for the sophisticated task of bipedal locomotion (walking upright on two feet). It also became apparent that shoes do little to help. In fact, shoes generally do more harm than good, hindering the foot’s natural ability to absorb the constant blows of heavy footfalls. Daniel discovered that shoes, as the late Dr. Samuel Shulman proclaimed, are “the greatest enemy of the human foot.”
Unlike any other creature, humans must support the full weight of their bodies on just two feet, and that weight is constantly shifting. Imagine the stress on a soccer player’s feet as he sprints, jumps, and zigzags across the field. The solution to this stress is an architectural wonder.
Fully 25% of the bones in your body reside in your feet! Why is that? They form not one but three arches in each foot (Figure 1). Like magnificent doorways in cathedrals and coliseums, our feet utilize arches, which must support a lot of weight with very little material. So the weight is distributed among lots of pieces (the bones of your ankle, foot, and toes). But unlike the static arches in architecture, our arches are dynamic. They constantly change position to redistribute our body weight across our feet, whether we are standing, walking, or running. The arches act as mobile shock absorbers and springs.
Even more amazing than manmade arches, which bear the weight of stationary buildings, our feet are designed with three different arches that bear the shifting weight of moving bodies.
Our feet have an ingenious “windlass” design. This allows the bones to relax when each foot falls and then tighten to propel us forward. Tendons act like ropes on a crank, pulling the bones together whenever a foot needs to push forward.
One of their most fascinating jobs is to facilitate the foot’s “windlass.” A windlass is a type of lever used to lift heavy weights (Figure 2). Perhaps the most familiar example is the crank and bucket used to lift water out of an old well. The windlass has three basic parts: a crank, a spool, and a rope or chain. A similar mechanism in your foot “lifts” and lowers the weight of your body during walking and running.
The “rope” is the tendon in the sole of your foot (called the plantar fascia), which runs from your heel to your toes. The rope “spools” around your toe joints. As you walk, your toes bend, allowing the tendon to wrap slightly around the toe joints. At the same time, the heel and toes are pulled closer together. That’s right—your foot actually shortens about half an inch (1 cm) when you take a step. As the foot shortens, the bones in the arches pull tightly together and lock. It’s an ingenious way to convert your flexible “landing” foot into a rigid “propulsion” foot that supports your body weight during liftoff. All of this is held together and coordinated by your uniquely human arches.
Your feet do other wonderful things as you walk and run, too. They go through beautifully complex, alternating sequences of flexing and extending, collapsing and rising, all as you simply walk across the room. At least that’s what happens when you walk barefoot.
Shoes are basically stiff casts that immobilize the foot, converting the complex motions of our steps into a simple roll. Most shoes—and even sandals—have arch “supports,” elevated heels, thick soles, and toe springs (the upward curve at the front of the shoe). All of these features prevent the arches from absorbing impacts or springing us into our next step. They also disable the windlass mechanism.
The elevated heel, for instance, shortens the Achilles tendon and shifts our body weight forward in both our feet and knees. Elevated heels are now believed to be a leading cause of knee arthritis. Toe springs keep our toes in an unnatural “hyperextended” position. This puts constant strain on the arches and, again, disables the windlass. The narrow toe box scrunches our toes together, causing bunions, hallux valgus, hammer toe, and ingrown toenails. Taken together, these shoe structures destabilize our stance and increase the chances of rolling an ankle.
And what about those thick shoe soles? They destroy sensory feedback from the foot, now known to be crucial as we make split-second adjustments in our gait to reduce the impact on our joints and spine. Finally, the dark, warm, moist environment of the shoe makes it an ideal incubator for the growth of bacteria and fungi, leading to foot odor and athlete’s foot.
So what convinced us to go barefoot? Although the academic findings are compelling, the real proof was in the pudding, as they say. Trying it for yourself is really the best way to discover it. It boils down to this: shoes are artificial devices that alter the way you stand, walk, and run. Your feet simply work better and remain healthier and more comfortable when they aren’t encased in shoes. Shoes restrict the God-inspired designs that make the foot such an amazing structure for walking and running upright in the first place.
Now, going barefoot is not without its challenges. Your feet are likely weak and tender from years of shoe use (ours were!). You may get weird looks. People will often stop you to ask why you aren’t wearing shoes, and some stores won’t let you in without shoes. (Many other stores, however, are happy to oblige. Daniel has a meal named “The Barefoot Professor” at one of his favorite local restaurants.) Just remember to be cordial about it, and be willing to respect the rules of companies or other places that don’t allow bare feet. (Interesting fact: No state or federal laws require customers to wear shoes in restaurants or other businesses.) We have found that it’s good to keep a pair of flip-flops handy, just in case!
So consider kicking off your shoes (at least once in a while), and take a step back toward Eden. Whether around the house or around the block, a nice barefoot walk will not only feel great but will also help you appreciate the marvelous God-given designs of your feet. small but growing ranks of barefooters.