“Despite all of our technology (including shoes), our bodies are just not ready for a world so completely tamed by our desire for comfort” – Scott Carney, author of the book What Doesn’t Kill Us

If we can optimize our walk by changing our environment, the same can be said about our footwear. Human feet adapted and developed over millions of years to allow us to walk long distances and sometimes run. Our foot’s innate physiology is all about motion, and once feet are deprived of movement from conventional footwear, they go into decline. Studies show that most foot problems are caused by modern footwear. Cushioning, arch supports, restrictive toe boxes and raised heels are all features of modern conventional footwear. Over many years, muscles and tendons in our feet weaken from lack of movement while conforming to the shape of our shoes. Foot problems in older adults are a major concern because they contribute to balance and gait issues, which lead to an increased risk of falls.

image showing two different foot types and their relationship to wearing shoes.

Natural “hunter-gatherer” feet (left) and modern feet shaped by narrow shoes (right).

I’m not suggesting that we all get rid of our shoes and go barefoot. Far from it. I’m just trying to bring awareness to the fact that we often choose aesthetics and comfort over functionality of our footwear. Our desire for cushy comfort in the short term can lead to painful foot problems and discomfort in the future. And it’s not just our cushy shoes. There could be other factors aside from our footwear that cause these injuries, not least our untrained and deconditioned bodies from a sedentary lifestyle. As our bodies age it becomes more important to stay as strong and mobile as possible, and to take care of our feet to reduce the risk of falling.

There are many physiological factors that increase our risk of falling as we age, e.g. loss of mobility and strength, slowed reaction time, impaired vision, and foot maladies. What often gets overlooked is our footwear. Bulky and highly supportive shoes may limit the sensory input to the brain, which can affect motor control in older people, especially those with mobility or neuropathy issues. When our feet cannot sense the changes in our environment, such as transitions from walking on hard surfaces to carpet, we’re more susceptible to tripping and falling. Similarly, if we have to negotiate stepping up or down with poor vision and mobility while wearing bulky shoes, we’re more prone to falling. Although it’s not common to walk barefoot in our shoe-obsessed culture, studies show that the use of a minimalist shoe can provide more sensory stimulation similar to a barefoot gait, which may help minimize the risk of falls in older people.

Podiatrist Dr. Alissa Kuizinas says: “The primary purpose of shoes is to protect our feet from the elements and from different surfaces….They don’t need to be bulky and restrictive, or supporting our feet”. Our feet are our foundation and designed to support and interface with the ground. “There are 20,000 nerve endings on the sole of each foot.” Walking barefoot or with minimalist shoes stimulates these nerves, helping our body feel more connected to our environment.

person walking barefoot through the grass

There are a number of brands of minimalist, lightweight shoes that will protect your feet and allow them to feel more connected to the ground for better balance and agility (My minimalist shoes of choice are Xero Shoes). However, it takes your body and feet time to adapt to this type of footwear. You might start by buying a shoe with a wider toe box and a low or zero heel differential, but which will provide you more support than a minimalist shoe (Altra is a good brand). You should also start to increase the strength and mobility in your feet with these exercises and by walking barefoot around your house. Start small by standing or walking in your backyard, experimenting with different textures (grass, dirt, sand, etc.) underfoot. Let’s face it, sometimes it simply feels nice to feel the grass beneath your feet!