Healthy, capable feet are the foundation for a healthy, capable body. No matter who you are, what you do, and what health issues you are currently dealing with, your entire body will experience better health if your feet are healthy. On a fundamental level, foot pain can inhibit us from being able to move the rest of ourselves as we may be driven to avoid standing or walking. Looking deeper, feet are important parts of our cardiovascular and lymphatic systems—pumping blood and lymph back to the heart and minimizing swelling—and the nervous system—communicating to our brain important information like temperature and the stability of what we are standing on. Even if you never walk or run, your feet are performing critical functions that impact everything higher up.
As with the rest of the body, I look to evolutionary science to get an idea of how our feet are supposed to behave and therefore what we can do to keep and restore their health. For the overwhelming majority of human beings’ existence, we have been barefoot creatures, walking several miles a day over varied, natural terrain. While modern Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years, our modern feet evolved at least 2 million years ago with our ancestors, Homo erectus. And even though it has been around 45,000 years since the very first shoes were invented, early shoes were generally thin, flexible moccasins and only worn by some people. Only in the last few generations have shoes become ubiquitous and our surroundings become so uniformly shaped as paved walkways and flat, even flooring. Knowing this history of our feet, we can look at the way feet were used for millions of years to infer what feet need to be healthy.
Human feet are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. While this doesn’t mean that modern humans must revert back to this lifestyle, we can use what we know of hunter-gatherer feet to deduce what would help our feet today. Feet that were walking, barefoot, over land that was largely unaltered by humans, would have constantly experienced a huge array of movement. Each human foot has 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons. This allows for an almost infinite number of ways for the foot to deform (to change its shape) in response to how you are moving over rocks, plants, sand, and earth. When you take away all the debris of nature and close the foot inside a rigid, narrow shoe, the amount of movement required of the foot is severely diminished. This impacts the parts inside the foot like a cast, the limited movement signaling to the body to let the muscles weaken, the joints stiffen, and circulation to drop. It also impacts everything outside the foot as the rest of the body must compensate for the feet not doing their job as well as respond to the unnatural effect of wearing shoes all day, every day. Knee pain, tight hips, back pain, and even neck stiffness can all be ameliorated starting with getting feet into more natural surroundings.
At its simplest, the solution is to take one’s shoes off and walk barefoot on natural terrain (such as your backyard, parks, the beach, mountain trails) as much as possible. By allowing our feet to behave as they evolved to more than 2 million years ago, we can re-strengthen muscles, re-mobilize joints, and replenish nerve supply. This will often help resolve many issues common to our feet today (but not common to people who live traditionally barefoot lives). However, no true solution is ever a simple one. Most of us have spent the majority of our lives conditioning our feet to a very restricted amount of movement. You wouldn’t raise an animal in captivity and then expect it to thrive when you release it in the wild with no preparation or transition time.
In 2015, I started transitioning toward using minimal footwear and walking barefoot more often. Beginning this journey didn’t end my foot issues immediately or miraculously, but rather it started me on a slow path toward truly resolving them and building strong, resilient feet. Today, my body is supported by feet that feel good, and I hope everyone can feel what that’s like.