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Archive for December, 2010

HuffPo? HuffGo!

OK, after trashing The Huffington Post for this article with ridiculous statements about barefoot running, I have to do the opposite for the article they published today: Barefoot Shoes? The Primal Reason You Want to Take Off Your Shoes.

The article is by Mark Sisson, described as “former elite marathoner and triathlete, author of the best-selling health and fitness book, The Primal Blueprint.”

He notes how we evolved (and did just fine doing so) with bare feet, and goes on to note:

We’ve still got those same feet, but we don’t use them anymore. Instead, we cover them up. We wear shoes that alter the structure and function of our feet, and that weaken the myriad tendons, muscles, and ligaments through disuse. We strap on rubber soles that sever our proprioceptive connection with the ground and restrict our nervous system’s ability to subconsciously respond to changing environments and protect us from tripping or turning an ankle.

He also describes our favorite Philip Hoffman study, “Conclusions Drawn From a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing People”.

His call? “Go barefoot as often as possible. It’s as simple as that.”

Here, here.

And for some of us, that is all the time. Admittedly, everybody cannot do that, and Sisson also acknowledges that. I’d add that one reason everybody cannot do that is nothing more than cultural expectations, and one of the things that the Society for Barefoot Living is doing is trying to change those expectations and make going barefoot more acceptable. Sixty years ago jeans were restricted to farmers, and then hippies or college students. But today jeans can be worn nearly everywhere. There is no reason the perception of bare feet cannot change the same way.

Sisson also includes a reasonable caveat:

As with any muscle you haven’t been using for an extended period of time, your feet are probably weak, and rushing into mile runs or two hours hikes in unprepared bare feet will be painful and potentially dangerous. Ease your way into it, especially if you’re habitually shod.

Good advice.

It is nice to see many of the arguments we have made over the years make it into more mainstream media, and that the barefooting movement is not just us barefooters talking amongst ourselves.

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Airplane Rock

You may have noticed that I’ve changed the banner photo to better reflect the season here in central Ohio.

I hiked out to Airplane Rock in Hocking Hills just to do so. Of course, as you can see, I rather screwed it up. You’d think that, after seeing the banner so many times I would remember what it looked like. You’d think that, since I took the original picture, I would remember where I had originally stood. You’d think that, before I left I’d carefully check the original to make sure. Well, you’d be wrong. And so was I!

Here’s the original, so you can compare:

Original Banner

Original Banner

Airplane Rock is one of the mostly hidden, but utterly cool, places in Hocking Hills. Most folks don’t know about it. It was called Airplane Rock by the original Amerindians who lived here, and you can see why from this picture taken from the side:

Airplane Rock

Airplane Rock

I made a special hike up there yesterday just to get the new banner. After a spate of really cold weather, we had a warm spell, with rain yesterday morning ahead of a warm front, and it made it up to about 45° today (7C). So, I was ready to be out and about. Obviously, there was still snow on the ground, but it had melted enough that the trails were a mix of wet mud and snow. My feet got colder in the snow and then warmed up in the wet mud. But it was pretty comfortable throughout. I was hoping there’d still be a few snow patches on Airplane Rock (just for the picture), and I got lucky.

After the photo shoot (Yay! I’m a model!), I headed down into the adjacent Long Hollow and hiked right to the tip, where there is a 100 foot waterfall. This time of year Hocking Hills gets really beautiful (as you saw in my hike to Cedar Falls). The water dripping from above freezes, and the water that makes it to the bottom freezes into a mound. They are ice stalagmites and stalactites. Here is what the waterfall at Long Hollow looked like:

Long Hollow Falls

Long Hollow Falls

My total hike was about 4 miles in 2 hours, and was the usual fun.

I’d also like to address a comment that appeared in an earlier entry, talking about natural versus unnatural surfaces (related to whether our feet could handle such things as concrete). I don’t think it matters whether the surface is natural or unnatural—our feet cannot tell the difference. It is only the hardness or compressibility of the surface that might matter. As you can see from the photos, there is a lot of sandstone at Hocking Hills, just as there is a lot of places throughout the world where people go barefoot (including our evolutionary homeland, Africa). Of course our feet have evolved to deal with it. Here is another photo, from earlier this fall, at Conkle’s Hollow, that shows the sandstone better:

Conkle's Hollow, looking north

Conkle's Hollow, looking north

(This is actually the background on my monitor at the moment.)

Bare feet can handle all this stuff just fine.

[PS. I am of course joking about Amerindians naming Airplane Rock. I don't doubt they instead called it something like Turkey Rock, or maybe Turtle Rock.]

[PPS. New camera for Christmas! Yay again!]

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Bare Feet and Child Custody

This is an old story, but unfortunately I can see it somehow being replayed these days, with a different outcome.

From the The Washington Herald, August 8, 1915, on page 3:

    RUNNING BAREFOOTED UPHELD BY TRIBUNAL


      Judge Quotes Whittier to Father Who
      Opposes Practice Permitted by Wife.

   Blessings on thee, little man.
   Barefoot boy, with checks of tan.

Los Angeles. Aug 7.–If Judge J. P. Wood, in divorce court, were allowed to give his judgment in poetry, Whittier’s “The Barefoot Boy” would have been his expression of a judgment he rendered in the case of Frank Lomonaco. who asked the court to change the custody of his children from his wife, Lena Lomonaco, to himself, be cause she allowed the two children to run barefoot in the Santa Monica Mountains. The couple were divorced two years aso. and Mrs. Lomonaco awarded the custody of the children. But to see Eileen Jane Lomonaco, seven, and Francis Aurella Lomonaco, five, running around barefoot, did not meet with the father’s approval.

Judge Wood denied the father his request.

“I was once a barefoot boy,” he said, “and the happiest days of my life were the days I spent as a barefoot boy.

“The boy or girl who has not had the privilege of running barefoot has been denied a heritage of youth for which nothing that comes later can compensate. The mother in this case is, according to the evidence, to be praised rather than condemned for allowing the children to run in bare feet.”

And then Judge Wood had recollections of Whittier’s poem:

   ‘Ah, that thou couldst know the joy
   Ere it passes, barefoot boy!’”

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HuffPo HuffPoo

The Huffington Post has a bit of a reputation among real scientists for promoting quackery, or at least promoting “medicine” that is not backed up by science. See, e.g., The Huffington Post’s war on medical science is noticed, Why is there so much medical misinformation in The Huffington Post?, and A science section for the Huffington Post? More like a pseudoscience section! (2010 edition). Now they have an article on barefoot running from Dr. Robert Kornfield, an “alternative medicine” advocate: Barefoot Running Shoes: How Effective Are They?. Dr. Kornfield is a DPM (Doctor of Podiatric Medicine), and I’m afraid his article reads much the same as others we hear from a lot of other podiatrists who are unfamiliar with barefoot or minimalist running.

As far as he is concerned, barefoot running (or, in this case, running in minimalist shoes) is a fad.

Barefoot running shoes are designed to re-create a “natural,” barefoot running dynamic on “unnatural” surfaces like concrete, asphalt, red top, black top, etc. How can we have a barefoot running shoe? Doesn’t barefoot denote without shoes?

Choosing to run on non-yielding surfaces without the protection afforded by proper running shoes can be harmful to the foot and ankle and cause even more problems downstream from compensation patterns. So what really are these pedal marvels and why is everyone running to take their shoes off?

Hey, at least he recognizes that a “barefoot running shoe” is not “barefoot.” But he also starts off with misconception number 1, that there is something different about “unnatural” surfaces. He goes on to say

Barefoot running shoe manufacturers believe that the human foot, unimpeded by synthetic surfaces and restrictive running shoes, should function at its best. That is a correct assumption, save for the fact that the human foot was designed long before the paving of roads. In fact, uneven, grassy surfaces are the most natural surface for the human foot because it helps the body navigate and respond to uneven terrain, while at the same time absorbs shock, stabilizes weight and propels the body forward. In order for this to occur successfully, most of us are born with a flexible forefoot and a rigid or stable rearfoot. In other words, at heel strike — when your heel hits the ground — your leg from the hip down is aligned for optimal function and is stabilized during normal walking.

OK, stop right there. He somehow seems to think that the human foot evolved in some sort of grassy park. Has he never gone hiking? You know, out in nature? There are all sorts of surfaces, from mud to sand to grass to rocks to hard pan. Those latter two are not all that different than asphalt or concrete. They also tend to occur a lot in the parts of Africa we all came from.

And then he talks about heel strike. I guess he just hasn’t heard about the research from Dr. Lieberman at Harvard. Barefoot runners who have been doing it any length of time don’t heel strike. What he does is introduce some sort of false dichotomy about heel strike: that is has something to do with whether you run on a natural or unnatural surface:

The lack of heel strike on unnatural surfaces is not mimicking the way the foot would perform barefoot on natural surfaces. For this very reason, these shoes will eventually come up short, as the foot requires either cushioned heel strike on an unnatural surface or minimal heel strike on natural surfaces.

No. When you run barefooted you simply do not heel strike, regardless of the surface (and if you do heel strike, you are doing it wrong, keeping the lousy habits you picked up from wearing shoes, in which the elevated heel guarantees a heel strike).

He then tries to give us a demonstration of this at work, and tells us that this decreases the propulsion of the big toe:

Try this. Hold your first metatarsal and pull it up as hard as you can, then with your other hand try to pull your big toe upward toward your ankle. You will find the joint will jam up and feel restricted. Now, hold your first metatarsal and apply pressure down toward the floor, then with your other hand, pull your big toe up toward your ankle. You will find a dramatic increase in the upward range of motion of the big toe — this is normalized function.

Huh? Ok, you can test this. The first metatarsal is the long bone just behind the toe bones. It runs from around the ball of your foot back to near the ankle bone (and of course, you have one for each toe). The one he is talking about is for the big toe, which does most of the work, which means its the one at the highest part of your arch.

So, go ahead, do what he says. Just inside your arch, pull up as hard as you can, then see if you can pull you big toe up. It’s really hard, isn’t it. So he is right about that. And if you let go of that first metatarsal, it’s really easy.

But what does this have to do with hard surfaces versus soft surfaces? Absolutely nothing. You see, under your first metatarsal there is a tendon (the one for pulling your toe down and applying force when you are running). When you press the tendon against the metatarsal, that prevents it from moving (you can feel it trying to work as you hold it down). So of course that prevents the big toe from moving against it. Duh.

However, there is a situation in which pressure is regularly applied to the bottom of your arch there (and which would then lead to decreased propulsion). That’s right: when you are wearing a shoe with arch supports, which nearly all running shoes do. The embedded arch presses the tendon against the metatarsal, reducing its range of motion. I have rather flat feet, and back when I wore shoes, those embedded arches always gave me a lot of discomfort as they severely restricted decent (and natural) motion.

And then he finishes with our favorite shibboleth: that only “special” people with “special” feet can get away with running barefoot. Because everybody else evolved with the shoes they came out of the womb with. Right. Oh, and for all those non-special people?

you can safely wear conventional running shoes manufactured by companies who have spent years on research and technology with the addition of a proper running orthotic.

(Emphasis added.)

Yup. Prescribing more orthotics to try to fix the problems that the shoes themselves cause. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these podiatrists have never seen feet that have not been damaged (and had that damage perpetuated) by shoes. They have no idea what a strong foot looks like, or what a strong foot can do.

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Barefoot? or Barefooted?

So, which word do you use? My impression has always been that “barefooted” has a bit of a retro feel about it.

Anyways, Google now has a new tool, their Ngram Viewer. This searches through all of the books they have scanned and counts up the occurrences of the words you ask for.

Here are the results for “barefoot” vs. “barefooted”:

Click on image for the full-size version

It appears that my impression was correct. Up until 1920 or so, “barefoot” and “barefooted” ran neck-and-neck, mostly. But suddenly in the 1920s, “barefoot” took the lead and rushed ahead, leaving “barefooted” in the dust.

I really don’t know why. But I can make some guesses that are pure speculation (and feel free to comment to leave your own guess). The 1920s is about the time when rural areas really started to industrialize. Rural electrification and radio started to spread, and even in rural areas folks were expected to wear shoes. As bare feet disappeared, they were discussed less, and the simpler, and more regular, “barefoot” came to the fore.

Also notice the jump in “barefooted” starting around 2000. I wonder if that is somehow related to media publicity the Society for Barefoot Living started to get around that time? As bare feet were talked about more, maybe that allowed more room (so to speak) for the alternative form.

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Unladylike

From the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, May 10, 1916 (Deborah Rush appears to have been the “Dear Abby” of the day):

Dear Deborah Rush—I am a young woman of 24. I live with my mother and my sister, aged 29. My sister is very good looking and stylish and is looked on as a leader of her set. She is a graceful dancer. She has taken up the fad of barefoot dancing and dances in this way a great deal. More than this, she goes barefoot about our home and has no hesitation in appearing before strangers in this way. I cannot help thinking this improper, but my pleading with her is in vain, as she insists there is nothing immodest about bare feet. Do you thing this is bad form on her part?

                                                L. S.

There is certainly no reason why a young woman should not take up the barefoot dancing. If one is graceful and supple there is a decided charm about the aesthetic dance. Of course, it is in execrable form to go about the house in bare feet, especially to appear in this manner before strangers. There is, as the young lady states, nothing immodest about bare feet, but it is not ladylike to appear in them except when engaged in that kind of dancing.

Oh, the horrors!

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Da Nile

It’s more than just a river in Egypt.

A week ago there was an article in The Detroit News entitled Barefoot craze hits everyday footwear. It’s mainly just a plug for a shoe made by Sanuk that they call a “Sidewalk Sandal”. It is yet another minimal support shoe (though, of course, it is not barefoot). I suppose if you have to wear something on your feet for your job, it’s better than nothing. (Huh? What am I saying? Of course, nothing is better. Let me try again: if you have to wear something on your feet for your job, it is probably among the least burdensome. How’s that? But I digress.)

But then the article makes the mistake of talking to the usual coterie of barefoot-ignorant and barefoot-hostile podiatrists:

Podiatrists aren’t thrilled with this celebration of shoelessness. People wear shoes, they say, because in modern society they need them.

Really? Why? Any support for this? Of course not.

Few people have an ideal foot type that doesn’t require support, said Brett Sachs, a Wheat Ridge, Colo., podiatrist. “Most people I see are ones who have flat feet or high arches or are getting other types of symptoms related to the fact they don’t have the support their feet should provide them and stress is getting redistributed to other parts of the body.”

Now this is just crap. How the heck did our remote ancestors ever manage to survive? Practically everybody has an ideal foot type that doesn’t require support. That’s the way evolution works. That’s what was found in the Hoffman study I often cite. This guy, in his daily practice, sees nothing but feet that have problems because they spend all their time in stiff-soled shoes that make them dependent upon getting support. And then he thinks that feet are naturally that way.

I’m reminded of how, for the longest time, it was thought that back belts were the way to go to prevent job-related back injuries. Everybody knew it. Until an actual study was done. A Prospective Study of Back Belts for Prevention of Back Pain and Injury, by James T. Wassell, et al. in The Journal of the American Medical Associationa, December 6, 2000, Vol. 284, No. 21, p. 2727, found no effect at all.

Barefoot advocates say going shoeless makes them feel more powerful, but Clinton Holland, an Englewood, Colo., podiatrist, doesn’t buy it.

“The whole idea of strengthening your feet by not wearing shoes, there’s nothing that backs that up,” he said. But he’s not opposed to shrinking from support.

“I tell patients, if it helps you, do it,” he says. “If it feels better, then knock yourself out.”

OK, I’ve read few things quite as moronical. He is basically saying that exercising a body part will not strengthen it. Really? But it is so nice (and condescending) of him to let us know that he will deign to let us go barefoot. It would be nice, though, if he recognized the limits of his practice.

I’ve mentioned before that podiatrists rarely see people who go barefoot all the time, so they just don’t have experience in the area. When they were in medical school, the learned tons of information, but all that information had been distilled for them (that’s what medical school does—distills and presents the information they need in their practice), and that information had been based on studying a shod population. And when it comes to barefooting, they are operating outside of their field of expertise and often don’t even know it.

It is kind of like examples we see on Monsters Inside Me in which somebody picks up some tropical parasite, and that person has to go through a whole slew of doctors before they find one who actually knows what is going on.

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Immune System

Over at the Facebook page for The Barefoot Book, author Daniel Howell asks:

Is there a connection between shoes & immunity? Many long-time barefooters report stronger immune systems.

I answered:

I’d be very careful generalizing. This is one area in which confirmation bias could be very, very strong, and an area in which one should be suspicious of anecdotes. I think a careful study with decent controls would really be needed to tease out any effect.

Let me go into more detail here.

First of all, what is confirmation bias? It is the tendency for humans to remember things that agree with what they already think and to forget those that disagree. This effect has been well-demonstrated in many cognitive studies. So, what we need to do is conduct well-designed studies that remove such bias.

Quite a few barefooters report fewer colds since they started going barefoot. Could that be from a barefoot-induced improved immune system? Well, I suppose it’s possible, but I personally tend to doubt it.

I’ve noticed that I tend to get fewer colds since going barefoot. But let me note how confirmation bias and other confounding factors could work into that. First, I have not kept careful track of my colds over the past years, so I really don’t know if I am getting fewer of them now. It may seem that way to me, but without accurate records, that could just be confirmation bias. Second, my kids are older now and have (mostly) left the house. When they were really little, it seems they were always bringing a cold home, and of course I’d catch it. As they grew older, they didn’t need such close care, and were much more careful about covering their noses when they sneezed, so transmission vectors were reduced. And now with them mostly out of the house, the opportunity for catching something from them is really, really reduced.

Now, that period coincides with my taking up barefooting. Without decent controls, it would be easy to attribute fewer colds to barefooting instead of what is the more likely explanation: fewer chances to get a cold.

There is also the question of mechanism. How might going barefooting increase the efficacy of the immune system when it comes to colds? Without at least a scientifically plausible mechanism, it all seems unlikely. I can think of two possible mechanisms, both fairly weak. First, we’ve noted that going barefoot can improve circulation. Maybe that does something, but the circulation is really only in the feet, and I don’t see how a cold virus would notice that, or how that would effectively raise the immune system. Second, and this one is more plausible, stress has been shown to depress the immune system. So if going barefoot gives you a better feeling of contentment and reduces stress, then it could improve your immune system. I’m not sure this is a really strong effect, though.

So, this is why I say it would really take a decent study to figure it all out.

So far I’ve focused only on colds. There are other areas in which I think barefooting might have a larger impact on the immune system. One reason may be the Hygiene Hypothesis, which suggests that an overly clean environment, one that our ancestors did not have, might insufficiently stimulate the immune system and lead to allergies. Of course, if you go barefoot, your body is physically exposed to a lot of dirt, so it could help with allergies.

In addition, there is the famous anecdote of the guy who cured himself of a severe allergy by infecting himself with hookworm. There has also been a study backing that up.

I can see another way the immune system could be strengthened. For all the hiking I do, I do occasionally get small dings on my foot, and those dings come into direct contact with the soil and soil micro-organisms. Of course, my immune system has to react to that. What I seem to have noticed is that (look out for confirmation bias!) while originally I would get some redness as my immune system had to develop new antibodies, the more I barefooted, the less redness would result, presumably because my body could call upon my pre-existing antibodies against those soil bacteria. That could come in handy if my body gets exposed to such bacteria in other contexts, and might give me an immunological advantage over a person who had not had such previous exposure.

Bottom line: there is some possible anecdotal evidence, but it needs to be backed up with carefully designed studies.

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Freaking People Out

Here in the Columbus area, the past week has been pretty cold, with highs in the low to mid-20s. Yesterday we had a break, with it going up to around 45. I took advantage of the weather to break out of some cabin fever, and I headed down to Hocking Hills for a bit of a hike.

It’s really pretty this time of year, with really large icicles hanging down at the waterfalls and wherever else water drips (a lot of places). There was about a ¼ of an inch of snow on the ground, but that really didn’t concern me.

Barefoot hiking, just by itself, is a lot of fun. All the textures and the opportunity to feel all the foot parts working in harmony is quite nice. But I have to admit that today was fun for another reason: freaking people out.

The temperature when I started was about 35°; I found it pretty comfortable. There were both snowy areas and areas that had been cleared by other people’s footsteps. The route I started out with did not have too many people, and the few I passed did not even seem to notice the state of my feet. The first folks I met were up along Rose Lake; it appeared to be a Boy Scout Troop with leaders. The leader did notice me, and had nothing but words of admiration. I kind of gave him the standard “CIVD” spiel, which he really got. In the end, though, I finished with one of my standard lines: “It looks more impressive than it really is.” And that is true; I was just walking along quite comfortably.

My next real encounter with people was quite a bit later, after I had turned around at a fire tower, and returned to Cedar Falls. There, I talked to the leader of a different Boy Scout Troop (this time I asked). We ended up talking for about 10 minutes before he even noticed my lack of footwear (the boys all assured him that they had noticed immediately). Again, I had a chance to educate a bit.

And here you can see me at Cedar Falls (you can see that much of the waterfall pool was frozen over from the previous week of cold weather):

An Icy Cedar Falls

An Icy Cedar Falls

Farther down I talked to another group. One of the members of the group was more interested just in the fact that I was hiking barefoot (as opposed to temperature), and there I gave another of my standard lines:

We go into the woods to see the sights, smell the smells, and hear the sounds, and then we turn off our sense of touch.

He actually sounded like he might like to try it some time (maybe warmer weather, though). Yay!

At another location on my way back, a woman noticed me and suddenly said, “You’re barefoot!” “Well, yes. Yes I am.” And then she caught me speechless, saying, “That looks comfortable.” “Well, yes. Yes it is.”

Overall, I was out about 3 hours (including the time stopped to talk to people), and I hiked a bit over 7½ miles.

Oh, and I also had a bit of fun imagining freaking out some other people, those who hadn’t actually seen me. This is how:

Snow Print

Snow Print

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Tuó

Here’s a nice video from the German folk duo, “Tuó”:

“Tuó” is Tasmin Gutwald and Oda Tiemann.

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Flat Feet versus Fallen Arches

A couple of weeks ago, over at America’s Podiatrist, Dr. Nirenberg asked, “Can Barefoot Running & Walking Fix Flat Feet?” He references a study, The Influence of Footwear on the Prevalence of Flat Foot: A Survey of 2300 Children, by Udaya Bhaskara Rao and Benjamin Joseph (The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Vol. 74-B, No. 4, July 1992, p. 525. The study was conducted on children in India.

Below is the criteria they used for grading an arch as high, normal, or flat:

Definitions of arch types

Definitions of arch types

What they found was that while 2.8% of the children who went barefoot all the time had “flat” feet, 8.6% of those who wore footwear had “flat” feet. They also found that the more shoe-like the footwear, the more of the children had “flat” feet.

There was a related study done a few years later, “The Influence of Footwear on the Prevalence of Flat Foot: A Survey of 1846 Skeletally Mature Adults“, by V. Sachithanandam and Benjamin Joseph (The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Vol. 77-B, No. 2, March 1995, p. 254. In this one, they compared the prevalence of flat feet based on the reported age at which the adult started wearing shoes. They found a 1.75% rate of flat feet in those who didn’t start wearing shoes until over the age of 16, and about 3.25% for those who started wearing shoes earlier.

It sure looks like wearing shoes contributes to a lower arch.

But what does that have to do with flat feet? Many folks confuse a flat foot (that is, a foot with a low arch) with fallen arches. In fact, Dr. Nirenberg says as much as he starts his blog entry:

Flat feet is a condition where the arch of the feet undergo collapse and flatten: That is why it is often also referred to as fallen arches. Individuals with flat feet can suffer from a variety of foot ailments, pain, and fatigue, which can also extend to the legs and back.

I do not think this correctly describes the situation. To understand what is going on, we have to go way back to a much earlier study, “Conclusions Drawn from a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-wearing Peoples, by Phil. Hoffman, M.D., St. Louis. (The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery (1905)). Dr. Hoffman had a chance to examine barefoot natives at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. He checked their arches and found a fair proportion of them did have low arches. However, and this is important, he did not see any pathologies associated with those “flat” feet. As he put it

If these statistics are a fair index for all feet, the conclusion is justified that weakness of the longitudinal arch rarely results in its depression, and that flat foot as a pathological entity hardly exists.

The height of the arch appeared to bear no relationship to the gait. In shoe-wearers, the affection commonly called flat foot is often associated with more than ordinary eversion of the foot on standing and walking. This eversion is due not to the low arch, but to the associated weakness or stiffness of the joints of the foot and weakness of the muscles controlling them.

In other words, among the barefooted, having a low arch, or “flat” feet, has nothing to do with whether you have a “fallen” or “weak” arch. A weak or fallen arch, a result of wearing shoes and thereby failing to keep those muscles and tendons and ligaments strong (also pointed out by Dr. Nirenberg), is a different condition than merely having a flat foot (or naturally low arch).

So, can walking and running barefoot fix a flat foot? No. But can it fix a fallen arch? Almost assuredly. Will it raise the arch? Maybe.

Obviously, as any physical therapist can tell you, using a previously inactive body part will strengthen it. It will not only strengthen that part, but all the other parts associated with it. Muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons will all respond to the greater use. I can see how it would be possible that toning all those parts could raise the arch as they are all strengthened. Obviously, there is some anecdotal evidence that this is so, but I’ve not seen studies that demonstrate it.

However, as the Hoffman study shows, who cares? It doesn’t matter! It’s not the height of the arch that matters, it is the underlying physiological structure, and you get that from going barefoot whether your arch rises or not.

In my own case, I have no idea if my arches are really raised since I started going barefoot. They do look raised, though. However, much of that just could be the appearance caused by the much thicker pads on my feet now. Since the pads get thicker on the non-arch parts of the foot, that can give the appearance of a higher arch.

One more point: There are reports of over-use injuries in those who just start going barefoot. These are the sorts of people who try to run long distance before all the muscles and bones and stuff have had a chance to properly strengthen (this can take around 6 weeks, and probably it is not fully there until 6 months). Since I also play tennis, I can relate this to tennis. If you never played tennis before and suddenly picked up the sport and starting playing hours on end, hitting as hard as you can, you have a very good chance of picking up tennis elbow. The parts of your arm need strengthening first, and it has to be worked up to (it also helps to work on technique!). Same with any sort of extended or extreme barefooting.

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A couple of weeks ago Reebok was sued for making false claims about their EasyTone “fitness” shoes. The lawsuit asks the court to make it a class action lawsuit. According to a story in the Quincy, MA, Patriot Ledger:

A lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of Massachusetts consumer Sandra Altieri claims Reebok made false claims about the efficacy of its toning shoes in delivering more of a workout to leg and butt muscles than a typical shoe.

Supposedly, the way they work is to create an instability when walking, causing the muscles to work harder. Reebok claims 28% harder.

Toning shoes are presented as a way to improve muscular definition by using an unstable sole design. Companies such as Reebok that sell toning shoes say this instability causes leg and butt muscles to work more vigorously than they would if the wearer was using a typical sneaker.

(Whole article here.)

The problem is, a study by the American Council on Fitness found no such benefit.

From a barefooters point of view, the whole idea is insane. Why would you want to create an instability when you walk? One of the real joys and benefits of walking barefooted is the great feedback and proprioception that it gives you. When I’m working in the kitchen, some of the joy of barefooting is the feeling of dancing from counter to counter. I rise up on the ball of my foot and pivot. I shift weight from one side of my (bare) foot to the other. It gives such a feeling of control, of awareness. The same applies when I play tennis, or do a number of other activities. And along the way, this is strengthening my foot. It’s making my foot do its normal function!

Compare that to the false sense generated by the EasyTone. Bah!

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Flying Barefoot

Since Daniel Howell was escorted off his plane yesterday for being barefoot, I thought I’d go over the situation for that.

Daniel was flying to NYC to appear on The Today Show to talk about The Barefoot Book. He had actually boarded the plane, and after he had his seat belt on, he was approached and asked if he had any shoes with him. He didn’t, so they tossed him.

Is that legal? Yes, it is. Your airline ticket is basically a contract with a private company, and the terms of that contract are detailed in that airlines “Contract of Carriage.” You can easily use Google to find the contract for any airline you are interested in flying. But it is probably not worth it. Practically every airline has a barefoot rule.

Daniel was flying US Airways, and you can see their Contract of Carriage can be found here (click on the PDF). The relevant section, for any airline, is under the heading “Refusal to Transport”, and for US Airways it says:

US Airways may refuse to transport, or remove from any flight, any passenger for the following reasons: Any passenger who may pose a threat to the comfort and/or safety of other passengers or employees including (but not limited to) passengers who: Are over the age of five (5) and barefoot, or otherwise inappropriately clothed, unless required for medical reasons;

Notice that they say that they may refuse to transport, not that they will, which really makes it a crap shoot depending on the employee who sees you. Also notice that they say the rule is for “comfort and/or safety.” That’s not a crap shoot; that’s just crap. Of course it is more comfortable to be barefoot, and medical experts actually suggest removing your shoes when flying to help keep the blood flowing. Now, maybe they don’t care about your comfort, but thing that the other customers might not be comfortable seeing bare feet. Crap there, too: they don’t ban flip-flops, which show the same amount of foot. And if were really about safety, then there would not be the exception for children under 5 years old, unless the airline wants to go on record saying that they don’t care about the safety of young children. (Think about that!)

It’s all just more mindless following the herd.

The origin of the rule predates the airline deregulation in 1978. Back then, flying was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board, and they dictated the Contract of Carriage. That Contract had the barefoot rule (but without the exception for children). After deregulation, most airlines just kept the original Contract, though over the years, many have slowly modified them. (You can see remnants of the CAB rules in that Refusal to Transport is still often called Rule 35.)

Some airlines (a very few) removed the barefoot restriction, Aloha Airlines being one of them. Unfortunately, Aloha ceased operating in 2008. Non-US airlines base their Contracts of Carriage (actually called “General Conditions of Carriage”) on a different model, and generally do NOT have a barefoot clause.

As I said, different airlines have modified the rules, so there are slightly differently worded versions.

Hawaiian Airlines:

Persons who do not meet HA standards for dress and attire: . . . For safety reasons, footwear must be worn unless the passenger is unable to do so due to a disability or physical condition that prevents them from wearing footwear.

Delta Airlines:

Delta may refuse to transport any passenger, and may remove any passenger from its aircraft at any time, for any of the following reasons: Delta may refuse to transport any passenger, or may remove any passenger from its aircraft, when refusal to transport or removal of the passenger is reasonably necessary in Delta’s sole discretion for the passenger’s comfort or safety, for the comfort or safety of other passengers or Delta employees, or for the prevention of damage to the property of Delta or its passengers or employees. By way of example, and without limitation, Delta may refuse to transport or may remove passengers from its aircraft in any of the following situations: When the passenger is barefoot.

AirTran:

AirTran may refuse to transport or may remove from any flight any passenger for one or several reasons, including but not limited to the following: If a passenger’s conduct is disorderly, abusive or violent, or the passenger: Is barefoot, or is clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.

Grand Canyon Airplane Tours:

In addition to persons who may be refused transportation on Carrier under Section 6 above, refusal to transport or removal of the following Passengers may be necessary for the comfort and safety of the affected Passenger or other Passengers: Persons over two years of age who are barefoot;

So, how do you fly barefoot? Barefooters have developed a few strategies. Often you can just board barefoot, since the employees are really pretty busy. Don’t look down at your feet, but keep looking directly into the eyes of the employee, particularly when handing over your ticket, and when passing by the flight attendant as you enter the plane. Once you are seated, you are probably fine if they didn’t see you come in, because, as I noted earlier, many people do take off their shoes once they are seated.

However, carry a pair of flip-flops, or something else you can put on for just a moment if challenged. Put them on, pass the person challenging you, and then just take them off again. Yeah, it’s a hassle (I personally hate to have to carry footwear just in case, and rarely do so), but at least then you don’t miss your flight.

One time, on Southwest Airlines, an otherwise very friendly airline, I’d boarded and flown barefoot without being challenged. (They have the “comfort and safety” excuse with an exception for those under 5.) However, on getting off the plane, I was noticed by a flight attendant who went ballistic, telling me I couldn’t be like that. OK, I’m leaving. I think part of his frustration was that there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about me. Hah!

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Here’s a heads up. Daniel Howell, author of The Barefoot Book is scheduled to be a guest on The Kathie Lee and Hoda segment of The Today Show. He will be appearing tomorrow, Friday, December 3 at 10:00am (EST, and whatever that translates to in other time zones).

Time to set up those VCRs and DVRs.

One thing about these various interviews: the news media consider bare feet just odd enough, and interesting enough, that appearing on one show will often generate a request to appear on another show (and they do have to fill those time slots). When I have occasionally been on the news, it seems that one appearance can lead to another appearance.

I’ve never hit the big time like Daniel has, though.

[Update: Word is that Daniel boarded his flight to NYC to appear on the show, but was then escorted off the plane because he did not have shoes. I don't know anything more at this point. Check in later for further updates.]

[Further update: Daniel's appearance was entertaining, informative, and charming!]

[Update X 3: From the comments, here's a link to the video of the segment.]

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Athlete’s Foot

Those concerned about bare feet always seem to mention athlete’s foot. Here is part of a Question and Answer from Dermatology Insights, Volume 3, Number 1, page 30 (2002). It was published by American Academy of Dermatology. I’ve emphasized some of the text:

Q: Why does athlete’s foot develop?

A: Athlete’s foot is a term used to describe a fungus infection of the feet. The correct term for athlete’s foot is tinea pedis. The fungi that cause athlete’s foot grow in moist, damp places. Sweaty feet, not drying feet well after swimming or bathing, tight shoes and socks, and a warm climate all contribute to the development of athlete’s foot. It’s commonly believed that athlete’s foot is highly contagious — that you can easily catch it from walking barefoot in the locker room. This is not true. Experiments to infect healthy skin with athlete’s foot have failed and often one family member may have it without infecting others living in the same house. It’s not clear why some people develop athlete’s foot and others don’t.

. . .

Q: How can you prevent athlete’s foot?

A: Wash your feet daily, and always dry your feet thoroughly, especially in between your toes. Avoid tight footwear, especially in the summer. Sandals are the best warm weather footwear. You should also use an anti-fungal powder on your feet and in your shoes during the summer. Alternate shoes so that they have a chance to dry out at least 24 hours before re-wearing them. Cotton socks (or socks made of a material that takes moisture away from the skin) are best and you should change them if they become damp. Whenever possible, go barefoot at home. Athlete’s foot does not occur among people who traditionally go barefoot. It’s moisture, sweating and lack of proper ventilation of the feet that present the perfect setting for the fungus of athlete’s foot to grow.

I might add that going barefoot all the time, not just at home, is even better.

Also, this is the source of the quote about athlete’s foot on the web page of The Society for Barefoot Living.

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