For A future without Falls: Barefoot!

Images from Coogee Walks, February 2018

by Annabel Streets From the Age Well Project

As many of you know, I became obsessively immersed in the science of walking while I was researching my last book. Strolling, hiking, sauntering, marching: however you do it, walking remains the best possible exercise for longevity. Last year’s ground-breaking study in which a group of men aged 50 - 70 reversed their biological age by three years in eight weeks (and now the subject of a book titled Younger You by Dr Kara Fitzgerald, more on this next month) included no exercise other than walking. Participants were encouraged to do any exercise they liked but, according to Fitzgerald, almost all of them chose to walk. All movement is good - of course - but nothing is as easy or convenient as tramping.

There wasn’t room for all that I uncovered in my last book. So the new book is a much more comprehensive examination of how we can coax even more from our daily walk. 52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time, includes a weekly suggestion for getting more out of every walk we do, each of which is supported by the sort of academic studies that Susan and I (somewhat oddly) love to read. Chapters include the benefits of walking in the cold, dark, mud, wind and rain (very relevant for those of us in the Northern hemisphere) as well as the varied benefits of walking at different times of the day, in different locations, or in different styles, whether that’s fast, slow, uphill, downhill, barefoot, backwards, before or after eating, or in and beside water, for example. Yup – there are 52 of these walking styles, all of which I've put into practise on my own ambles!

There was one subject I didn’t have much space for: footwear. I’m often asked about it, so this week I’ll share what I’ve discovered, and what I'm wearing. Why does footwear matter? Because a third of older people have at least one fall a year, often resulting in hospital stays, loss of confidence, and a general incapacity that we know is hugely detrimental to ageing well.

So here’s how my footwear cupboard has changed. Firstly, the high heels have gone. It wasn’t easy giving up the glamour of a heel, but new research suggests high heels really should be relegated to the dressing up cupboard or worn for special occasions only. Wearing high heels leads to slower walking speeds and shorter step length – meaning fewer benefits from our stroll. But high heels also completely redistribute weight and pressure, affecting the load on our joints and changing our gait – for the worse. Researchers have linked high heels to weakened balance, knee osteoarthritis and lower back pain. Shoes with a narrow toe box (pointy shoes) have been linked to bunions that not only cause pain and discomfort but can change our gait decades afterwards, making us more likely to fall over later in life.

I wore stylish heeled shoes (every day) for nearly two decades, and I still like an odd foray in heels, but now I stick to wedged heels with a wide toe box – and only for the odd evening out.

So I’ve ditched the high heels and the pointy toes. But what next? Trainers? Well, no. The case against trainers has been slowly and quietly swelling. Trainers are now so comfortable and well-cushioned they may actually be harming our feet. Like a ready-meal, a pair of trainers looks enticing and convenient. But it seems this abundance of cushioned comfort is making our feet lazy and prone to injury.

So let’s start with a quick bit of history: we evolved to walk upright about five million years ago, becoming superlative distance walkers. Our long Achilles tendon, combined with high arches and splayed toes, made us natural walkers with strong and flexible feet. We walked barefoot for millennia, and then we began wearing very basic sandals and boots, thin-soled, flat and designed solely for ease-of-walking and protection from the elements.

So far, so good. But about 100 years ago, footwear began changing the shape of our feet. The advent of trainers exacerbated this. Some evolutionary biologists and podiatrists now think trainers are damaging our feet, our gait and our ability to balance – all of which affect us as we age.

When we walk barefoot, we send a vital source of information to the brain (fascinating fact: the soles of our feet contain twice as many nerve endings as a penis!) – on everything from the landscape, to the position, tension, and pressure of our foot. Our brain then tells our muscles exactly how and where to move in order to avoid damaging our body. This clever, nifty communication system is completely stymied by padded trainers. Because our brains no longer receive much of this information, our feet are left to their own devices. As one evolutionary biologist explained, in trainers we land far too heavily, sending shock waves that travel up our body often damaging our knees in the process.

Susan’s been going barefoot for ‘grounding’ reasons (see her last post): if you try it, you’ll notice immediately how lightly you land. Barefoot walking has some benefits, which I cover in more detail in chapter 29. But a 2020 study found that wearing minimal footwear was better than going barefoot for older people, improving posture and gait. Besides, for many of us it’s simply not practical to walk outside without shoes. Going barefoot indoors, however, is a good way of re-introducing our feet to walking as our bodies intended.

For outdoor walking, I’ve switched (mostly, not always) to minimal footwear, sometimes known as barefoot or minimalist footwear. While this isn’t the same as going barefoot, a recent study from Liverpool University found people who wore minimal shoes for six months increased the strength of their feet by 57%. In this study they wore them six days a week, for 70% of their day, but only for walking (not running or other exercise).

Why do we need strong foot muscles? Well, studies suggest that stronger foot muscles lead to better balance and stability. Weak foot muscles have been linked to a greater chance of falling, as well as to a greater chance of injury. Another study found that wearing minimal footwear for only eight weeks was enough to increase foot muscle strength by 41% – which seems like an easy win to me!

The Liverpool researchers also speculated that minimal footwear would increase the bone mineral density of all those tiny bones in our feet (over 26 of them). Which is to say, we could get stronger muscles and denser bones, as well as improved walking gait and a reduced chance of falling later on in life. I write this as someone once rendered immobile after breaking a tiny metatarsal bone in my right foot.

According to Prof Huberman ‘‘Everyone should have an endurance activity - there are clear longevity benefits.” Walking is the perfect endurance activity, so don’t feel compelled to restrict your walk to 30 minutes. Find the right footwear and walk a little bit further each day.

Minimal shoes will make your feet fractionally wider, but they might also help you overcome gait problems and issues arising from wearing trainers. The reason I ditched my trainers was nothing to do with science, as it happens. For no reason that I could think of, my feet had started to hurt. I noticed that the pain faded when I walked around the house in my socks. So I decided to try a pair of Altra Escalante barefoot-style trainers. Within days, my foot pain had gone. I’ve since moved onto Vivobarefoots (shown in the picture are an about-town boot for everyday use). But for all-day distance hikes over rugged terrain I still like the weight, grip and support of an old-fashioned leather walking boot.

Our advice? Try out different styles and find what works for you. If you’ve never worn minimal footwear, now might be the time to try. Don’t forget to begin with short stints and build up. A great place to start is Joanna Hall’s free YouTube tutorials on how to choose footwear. Many of the styles she recommends are minimal/barefoot, with a generous toe box, thinner sole – which means more flexibility – and low/zero heel to toe drop, and without the stability cushioning and controlling of a regular trainer. Most minimal styles will also avoid toe springs – a curved toe box often used in trainers to compensate for the every chunkier soles, and designed to propel us forward. Toe springs are the scourge of some podiatrists who believe they are weakening our feet still further.

What footwear do you wear for walking? Please share your favourite walking shoes by leaving a comment in the box. We’d love any recommendations!

52 Ways to Walk is available to pre-order from your local bookshop or via the link on our blog. I’m talking on various radio and TV stations over the next few weeks and we'll try and put the links on our Instagram. Or catch me on Scala Radio (from 27.00) here. I'll be giving talks and guided walks - and I'll share those details too.

And if walking’s not your thing (or even if it is), there’s still time to book Susan's free Zoom webinar, Your Age-Well Reboot: better nutrition for healthy longevity, on Tuesday Feb 1st at 0800 GMT. All the details on how to book here.

Happy walking!


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