July 8, 2010
By Darren Richardson, C.M.T.
The good news about “The Barefoot Book” is that people with feet now have a fun, factual and easy-to-read owner’s manual.
The bad news is that American culture has become so shoe-addicted in recent decades that the book ever needed to be written in the first place.
Thankfully, author Daniel Howell’s “The Barefoot Book” is arriving right on time to help get people back on track when it comes to foot health.
Coming on the heels of the Christopher McDougall’s surprise 2009 best-seller “Born to Run,” which helped popularize barefoot running even before the 2010 Harvard study in support of shoeless running, TBB explains in clear, precise language why the foot works so much better without shoes. Additionally, Howell devotes an entire chapter to busting baseless myths that have gained an ugly foothold in recent decades and make walking barefoot on a regular basis much more of a cultural chore than a physical one.
With the help of numerous photos and illustrations to underscore the differences between strong, healthy feet that are exercised regularly through barefoot walking and weak, atrophied feet that spend most of their waking (and walking) hours in the cast-like confines of shoes, TBB makes a compelling case for the health benefits of eschewing shoes far more frequently than is common in contemporary American society.
Howell, who holds a doctoral degree in biochemistry and teaches anatomy and physiology at Liberty University in Virginia, is an unabashed advocate for walking, hiking and running barefoot as often as possible – which is probably a lot more often than the typical shoe addict would suppose before reading the book. As Howell writes early on and clearly explains in the ensuing pages:
“The key to good foot heath is barefoot locomotion – moving along the ground on your bare feet.”
If he were writing about any other body part besides the feet, stating that we need to exercise that area for it to be as strong and healthy as possible wouldn’t be such a novel statement. After all, we understand that bench presses build our pectorals, squats build our quadriceps and stomach crunchers tighten our abdomen.
But for many people, the idea that feet can benefit from actually being exercised is a foreign concept. In recent decades, due to a combination of factors related to footwear fashion, anatomical ignorance and the constant bombardment of shoe advertisements, cradle-to-grave dependency on shoes has become the cultural norm in the United States and many other developed nations. It is normal for those raised in such an environment to believe that human feet are inherently inadequate for life in the modern world without the “protection” afforded by shoes. But as Howell reminds us, “normal” and “natural” can be two different things:
“are not natural. They may be normal, meaning that the majority of people in our society wear them… but they are not natural. … Although most people assume that shoes are protective, they often cause more harm than good. And despite common fears, the environment – both natural and urban – poses few threats to bare feet."
It is wise to go slowly at the beginning of any new activity, and barefooting is no exception; do not expect to be able to pad around on all surfaces as readily as The Flintstones after a day or two of shucking your shoes. Listen to your body and proceed accordingly. And for some people, increased barefoot walking may not be the best idea. Dr. Ray McClanahan, an Oregon podiatrist, points out in the foreward that people suffering from diabetic neuropathy are not good candidates for embracing the barefoot lifestyle.
As someone who has worked with literally thousands of feet in my massage, reflexology and acupressure practice, I would add that the same holds true for people who really enjoy or strongly prefer wearing shoes and whose bodies show no signs of long-term damage from chronic use of footwear. It can be helpful, however, even for habitual shoe-wearers to exercise their feet via barefoot walks on natural terrains from time to time. And it is also important for fans of shoes to know that those who make a conscious decision to go barefoot are well-informed in their choices and choosing what works best for them. The shod are at no more of a risk from the barefoot than the hatted are from the hatless, and the sooner our society accepts this, the sooner we can all make smarter decisions about what helps our own two feet remain strong and healthy.
An Antidote to Irrational Fears
For the many millions of Americans who would like to go barefoot more often but have been irrationally frightened into believing that doing so is a sure invitation for foot trouble, TBB is now the closest thing to a written antidote for this strange cultural fear. Howell isn’t trying to put shoe stores out of business or even dissuade those people who like wearing shoes all the time from their preference. Instead, he simply counters a host of myths with a presentation of facts while increasing awareness about foot health (and happiness) in the process.
Unlike our arches, which function just fine without it, Howell deserves strong support for the steps he is taking toward this end. Buy his book, share it with others, and keep it mind as a gift for any season or occasion. And remember, happy people have happy feet.
Additional information about “The Barefoot Book,” including a promotional video and details about Howell’s ongoing 15-city book tour (concluding July 26 in New York) can be found at the book’s website.
Darren Richardson is a professional reflexologist, massage therapist, acupressurist and writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He has hiked regularly with the Bay Area Barefoot Hikers since 1995 and has been running 40-50 miles a month sans shoes since late 2008. As a member of the Society for Barefoot Living for more than 10 years, he welcomes the recent interest in barefoot exercise and the growing recognition that while shoes sometimes serve us well, much of the time they serve us best by staying away from our feet. Visit his website at www.gstouch.com.