Adam Sternbergh's long investigative New York Magazine piece, "You Walk Wrong," makes a compelling case for shoes as inherently damaging to your feet and spine. I have very flat feet, which has always meant problems with my hips, knees and back, and I've worn custom orthotic inserts since I was a teenage. Last year, I picked up a pair of Vibram Fivefingers "barefoot shoes" that do a pretty good job of simulating the experience of going barefoot without the tetanus and laceration risk, and I've done a lot of city and country walking in them, and I have to say, my back and knees and feet feel pretty damned good after a couple days in them.
At first glance, this seems like a sensible and obvious approach–to work with the foot, not against it. But it represents a fundamental break from the dominant philosophy of shoe design. For decades, the guiding principle of shoe design has been to compensate for the perceived deficiencies of the human foot. Since it hurts to strike your heel on the ground, nearly all shoes provide a structure to lift the heel. And because walking on hard surfaces can be painful, we wrap our feet in padding. Many people suffer from flat feet or fallen arches, so we wear shoes with built-in arch supports, to help hold our arches up…
Admittedly, there's something counterintuitive about the idea that less padding on your foot equals less shock on your body. But that's only if we continue to think of our feet as lifeless blocks of flesh that hold us upright. The sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings in it, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body. Our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae, helping us balance and transmitting information to us about the ground we're walking on.
But (you might say) if you walk or run with no padding, it's murder on your heels–which is precisely the point. Your heels hurt when you walk that way because you're not supposed to walk that way. Wrapping your heels in padding so they don't hurt is like stuffing a gag in someone's mouth so they'll stop screaming–you're basically telling your heels to shut up.
And your heels aren't just screaming; they're trying to tell you something. In 2006, a group of rheumatologists at Chicago's Rush Medical College studied the force of the "knee adduction moment"–basically, the force of torque on the medial chamber of the knee joint where arthritis occurs. For years, rheumatologists have advised patients with osteoarthritis of the knees to wear padded walking shoes, to reduce stress on their joints. As for the knee-adduction moment, they've attempted to address it with braces and orthotics that immobilize the knee, but with inconsistent results. So the researchers at Rush tried something different: They had people walk in their walking shoes, then barefoot, and each time measured the stress on their knees. They found, to their surprise, that the impact on the knees was 12 percent less when people walked barefoot than it was when people wore the padded shoes.