Wearing shoes alters the shape and normal functioning of the feet, researchers have found.
Barefoot walkers in south India, who have never worn a pair of shoes or sandals in their entire lives, are teaching a lesson or two about footwear — that constantly using shoes alters the normal form and function of the foot, and that this may even lead to the development of an undesirable peak pressure under the sole, which in some cases could become life threatening.
Nearly 100 barefoot walkers from the interiors of Mandya, Kolar and Bangalore districts in Karnataka, India, left a footprint in the world of academics when a multinational team of researchers from Belgium, India and the UK descended on them to record their footfall.
Team leader Kristiaan D’Aout, a biologist at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, had always wanted to study the changes that footwear brings to the human feet. The idea was to gain an insight into normal foot functioning, which has evolved over millions of years.
However, with no barefoot walkers in Europe, D’Aout was forced to keep the idea in cold storage until he met Vinaya Anand Suratkal, a doctor from the Bangalore-based Jain Institute of Vascular Sciences (JIVAS), at a conference in Vienna about two years ago. JIVAS, which is part of the Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain Hospital in Bangalore, runs a mobile clinic that travels to rural areas in and around Bangalore to screen and treat those suffering from foot ulcers associated with diabetes.
The study, which won this year’s Nike Research Award — instituted by the sports goods giant Nike — studied the morphology and biomechanical functions of the feet in three distinct healthy populations: barefoot walkers, habitually shod Indians, and Europeans who have always worn footwear. It found that barefoot walkers have a relatively wider forefoot and the pressure is distributed more evenly over the entire surface of the sole than in the other two groups.
Habitually shod Indians wear shoes less often than Westerners do. Also, their shoes are less constraining. Yet, the scientists found significant differences when compared to their habitually barefoot peers, both in the foot shape and pressure distribution.
“The evolutionary history of humans shows that barefoot walking is the natural situation,” D’Aout told KnowHow. While the use of shoes remains a necessity when one walks on unsafe surfaces and in athletics, footwear fails to respect the natural shape and function of the feet.
The researchers hope that the findings will not only help clinicians who treat foot ulcers, but will also lead to the designing of better footwear that will not hamper the feet’s biologically normal functions.
D’Aout’s chance meeting with Vinaya, who was in Vienna to present a paper on the work being done at JIVAS, seemed like a golden opportunity to the Belgium biologist. Realising that many in India still do not wear shoes for religious or financial reasons, he decided to collaborate with the researchers at JIVAS. “Kristiaan approached us with his idea and we thought it was fascinating,” says Kalkunte R. Suresh, director of JIVAS. “When our mobile van goes into the villages, the patients generally do not come alone; they are accompanied by a few other healthy relatives. We requested these healthy individuals, who have never worn shoes or sandals in their life, to participate in the study and walk on a foot scanner,” says Suresh.
D’Aout is not saying that people shouldn’t wear footwear. “Footwear is a wonderful invention. But the human foot is adapted to barefoot walking,” he says.
The study has shown that wearing shoes lifelong leads to an increase in peak pressure under the sole. “This is certainly bad in some people (it causes ulceration in diabetes patients), and it remains to be seen whether it is a real problem in healthy people. It does make sense to have low pressures though, but nobody knows exactly if there is, for example, a threshold value of pressure that should not be exceeded,” he explains.
“We have shown that footwear does change the foot, and so it makes sense to walk barefoot every now and then (at least for healthy people and, of course, ensuring that the walking surface is safe),” adds D’Aout. This, he says, will keep the feet in shape and the muscles trained.
According to D’Aout, people in India have better footwear habits than those in the West. They often wear open shoes and wear them less often (for example, many prefer to walk barefoot in the house). Besides, children too mostly walk barefoot.
The study also found that wearing shoes throughout makes one’s feet narrower and leads to poor load distribution. Besides, it is better not to wear shoes that constrain the toes (like do some fashionable women’s footwear) or are overly protective (like mountaineering boots) for everyday use.
So be careful about what footwear you use, and when to fling them off. Go ahead, just do it.
Source: The Telkegraph (Kolkata, India)