Believe it or not, the quality of your shoes can affect way more than just your feet. If feet become misaligned or injured due to poorly constructed shoes, the effects could extend to everything that’s connected to the spine. The body is a complex organism, and when one part of it is in bad shape, the rest of it usually bears the consequences. This being the case, it would make sense to wonder how we can avoid this scenario. Ask one person, and they’ll tell you that wearing shoes with arch support saved them thousands of dollars in visits to the chiropractor. Ask another person, and they’ll tell you the story of how wearing “barefoot” shoes resolved years of chronic pain. While nobody will recommend wearing flip-flops or high heels for healthy joints, there are many other types of shoes that have a ton of avid fans.
But what do the professionals say? According to them, arch support or minimalist shoes aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions. What will work for everyone, though, are shoes that provide plenty of room for the feet and toes, and don’t involve raised heels. In fact, these features are so effective at protecting feet that you’ll find them in shoes for men with diabetes.
What about the average person, who just wants to know what type of shoe won’t mess up their joints? The answer to that question isn’t necessarily straightforward, but it’s still fairly easy to understand.
How feet are supposed to work
If you look at the issue from an evolutionary perspective, humans are “supposed” to be barefoot, or at least wear shoes that don’t restrict their natural movement. The foot is supposed to meet the ground with the heel, roll to the ball of the foot, and leave the ground with some pressure to the toes.
On hard surfaces, the muscles of the feet actually have to do less work because they can simply roll heel-to-toe. On softer surfaces, such as sand, there’s less resistance; the foot muscles have to work harder to grip onto the shifting surface. Before the invention of shoes, humans walked barefoot on all kinds of surfaces – hard, soft, slippery, etc. This resulted in stronger feet that were less likely to cause alignment problems. Contrary to what you might think, it’s even been shown that people who frequently walk barefoot are less likely to lose their arches (compared to those who consistently wear shoes).
Are we supposed to wear shoes or not?
Why does this happen? As humans became used to footwear, we started working the muscles in our feet less and less. This left our feet more vulnerable to injury, and prone to problems like flat feet. This last condition occurs when the arches of the feet lie flat, and has been linked to lower back pain, cartilage damage, and knee pain. Interestingly enough, flat feet are observed more often in populations that are habitually shod, and less often in people who prefer going barefoot or using minimalist shoes.
These observations could leave some people questioning the validity of wearing shoes at all, especially those with arch support or other orthopedic features. However, this is a huge oversimplification of the issue. It isn’t just a matter of saying “we evolved without shoes, so we need to live without shoes”. Aside from the fact that shoes are extremely effective at protecting our feet from injury and contaminants, many people actually need more structured shoes.
For example, someone with flat feet would actually benefit from shoes with strong arch support. This can help train their feet back into a more natural shape, or at least prevent them from getting worse. Another example would be people with diabetes. They often have circulation issues that can severely affect their feet, resulting in increased rates of infection, ulcers, and even neuropathy, or loss of sensation due to nerve damage. In this case, a very specific type of shoe is best: something with plenty of cushioning to prevent chafing, but also with a certain amount of support for protection.
Shoes to wear and shoes to avoid for optimized health
According to the experts, two of the main problems with modern footwear are elevated heels and a poor fit. Both high heels and overly narrow shoes can cause misalignment in the joints, as well as problems in the feet themselves. These problems include:
- Foot deformities as feet change shape to accommodate badly fitted shoes
- Calluses and corns, caused by pressure points or friction
- Bunions, which are also caused by badly fitted shoes
- Chronic pain from any of these conditions
Does this mean that everyone has to stop wearing heeled shoes, like high heels or cowboy boots, and stick to Dr. Scholl’s until the day they die? Not at all! For one thing, occasional use of less-than-optimal shoes probably won’t do any long-term damage on otherwise healthy feet. For another thing, there are many different types of shoes available that are both good for the feet, and pleasant to look at.
Rather than discussing particular styles, it’s more helpful to describe which features to look for. These are the main ones:
- A good overall fit, that doesn’t cause chafing, friction, or pressure points
- A sole that’s flexible and thin, which lets our feet bend and roll from heel to toe like they’re supposed to
- A strap, lace, or Velcro that will keep the shoes attached firmly to the foot
If you’re looking for everyday shoes that will treat your feet kindly, they should have all of the above features. Of course, this rules out several popular options like flip-flops or high heels, but it also tells us something about how we should be shopping for shoes. Many people go into the shoe store, see something they like the look of, and are satisfied when it almost fits. If we want to keep our feet and joints healthy, we need to start prioritizing function over form. The good news is, there are plenty of options for well-designed, stylish shoes; we just have to make sure we’re making the right choices for our feet and our health.