I have always been a shoe person. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had some kind of shoe on my tender tootsies, whether it’s the comfortable shoe to walk in, the sexy shoe to go out in, or the at-home slipper to laze around in. I have liked the sense of comfort, the seeming strength, the inherent safety of a shod foot. Also, living in Canada with our cold winters, a cozy slipper is almost imperative.
I remember being shocked years ago when I read an article written by a dedicated jogger who had taken to the new trend of running in “barefoot sneakers”, thin runners that are made of skin-like plastic that are so much like bare feet they sometimes sport individual toes. These shoes are designed to mimic the actual barefoot experience without the inherent risks of running with no protection. This was the first I’d ever read about the supposed advantages of running barefoot—the article cited all the studies that have proven that the human body is safer when it does what it was designed to do—ie, running naturally—rather than being misdirected by all the arch supports and heel adjusters and weight calibrators of our famous running shoes. The writer waxed on about her own amazing experience running in these barefoot sneakers: her chronic knee pain had disappeared, she enjoyed the experience of running so much more, and she was running faster too. For some reason, this new piece of information lodged itself in my mind and held my curious, if still shoe-obsessed, attention.
Then a few months ago, as I mentioned here, I read a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Among his many other collected bits of neuron-facts, he also mentioned the neural advantages of the bare foot. Believe it or not, there is an important brain-map in our feet (for anyone who has ever had reflexology or massage of the foot, this is probably no surprise), and this brain-map is linked to our gross motor skills. There is a whole chapter in the book (thanks to intense studies by neuroscientists like Michael Merzenich) that describes the importance of this map and how we can redesign the brain, in both good ways and bad, depending on the kind of stimulation (or lack thereof) that this map gets.
I recalled that old article about the benefits of barefoot running when I read how Merzenich blamed the loss of gross motor skills as we age to a decrease in sensory feedback … from our feet. And why? Because we wear shoes—all the time! Shoes interfere with the stimuli to our brains that keep us agile and mentally “on our toes”. The artificial flat surface inside our shoes literally dumbs down the challenges that uneven, imperfect, unusual surfaces would normally stimulate in these brain-maps. To add to this, as we get older, we often start using walkers, canes or crutches, and these further dull any messages our feet might send to our brains. Then to make it worse, we begin to watch where our feet our going (ie down stairs or across the room), further dulling this important neural activity.
The good news is that the more time we spend barefoot and not watching where our feet are going, the more we will maintain—and even develop—the brain-map in our feet!
How could I resist this call to de-shod??? Now I pull off my shoes the moment I get home, and yes, I have even given up my at-home slipper. And, yes, yes, I do notice a difference. Maybe not in my gross motor skills, but definitely in the sensual pleasure of feeling the ground beneath my bare feet. The texture of my smooth kitchen tiles, the grain of the backyard deck, the warm nubbly-ness of the driveway asphalt. It is divinely pleasurable. And maybe even a way to get—and stay—smarter and more agile. I don’t know what will happen when it gets cold again, but I am hoping I can get used to a be-socked foot and avoid the always be-slippered one. We’ll see. In the meantime, this is foot for thought.
Deb: Oh how I loved the foot for thought, Barb. Again, you with the hitting the nail on my head. Or dropping the other shoe. I have always always been a shoe girl. My friends have teased me about it, my not wanting to be barefoot. We are right now, up at our beach house rental as we did last year. And last year at this beach house, my shoe wearing ways were turned on their ear. I was walking along the beach with sandals on, natch, and suddenly I took them off and found myself barefoot for the rest of the trip. When I returned home I found myself barefoot and happy about it. But not all day. At night and first thing in the morning my moccasins must be worn. I also have a weird thing that my feet cannot feel too DRY. It gives me the creeps. And if one foot gets wet and the other is dry, I must get the other one wet or it creeps me out ... uh oh, I’ve said too much.