Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Are your shoes healthy Best shoes for joints and health Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Turns out that just like many other aspects of life that we take for granted (like mobile phones, fast food, and bottled water), our shoes can often do more harm than good.

More and more research is emerging about the problems associated with long-term use of positive heel and overly supportive shoes. As we spend (or should spend) at least half of our day on our feet, our footwear options can affect us more than we realize!

The Problem With (Most) Shoes

Statistically, most of us wear cushioned, supportive shoes with a positive heel (meaning the heel is higher than the toe of the shoe). Typically, the dressier the shoe, the more noticeable the positive heel (especially for women) and the more “athletic” the shoe, the more cushioned.

Heels and supportive running shoes are the norm, but it appears that they may cause more harm that good!

“Cushioned running shoes, which date back only to the 1970s, may seem comfortable but may actually contribute to foot injuries, says Daniel Lieberman, PhD< , professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and colleagues."

Supportive and cushioned shoes encourage the wearer to land on the heel of the foot when walking or running, as the shoe absorbs the impact. This alters the natural step and posture (watch babies who have just learned how to walk to see the difference!) and creates a different walking pattern.

"Lieberman and colleagues analyzed the running styles, or gaits, of five groups of people — U.S. adult athletes who had always worn shoes, Kenyan adult runners who grew up barefoot but now wear cushioned running shoes, U.S. adult runners who grew up wearing shoes but now run barefoot or with minimal footwear, Kenyan adolescents who have never worn shoes, and Kenyan adolescents who have worn shoes for most of their lives.

And they say they found a striking pattern.

Most shoed runners, which would encompass 75% or more of Americans, strike their heels when they run, experiencing a large and sudden collision force an average of 960 times for every mile they run, “making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries,” the authors write.”

As nothing in the body exists in isolation, altering a person’s walking pattern will have an impact on joints above the foot (mainly knee and hip) as well.

Even things like arch supports, which seem like a good idea, can actually cause the problem they are meant to fix by over-supporting the arch and causing the muscles in the foot to get weaker from lack of use.

Another problem with most shoes is that they block us from direct contact with the earth, which has many positive benefits of its own, including reduced inflammation.

So, if our feet aren’t meant to be confined to cushy rubber soles all day but social norms frown on walking barefoot in most places, what are the alternatives?

The Benefits of Barefoot (or Almost Barefoot)

While I personally prefer to be barefoot (cue the barefoot and pregnant jokes), this isn’t always feasible. Fortunately, modern technology and age old wisdom have collided to create some great solutions. So what are the benefits of being barefoot? Glad you asked….

  • Going barefoot or wearing shoes that allow barefoot movement actually strengthen the muscles of the feet and legs by requiring balance and stabilizing movement. This also reduces injury risk if done regularly and carefully. (source)
  • Mounting evidence is showing that many ankle and knee problems may be linked to the artificial way of walking created by overly-supportive shoes and that simply changing to more natural footwear options can help alleviate these problems.(source)
  • Going barefoot (or in barefoot shoes) can actually strengthen the arches by requiring the muscles of the foot to hold up the arch instead of providing support that causes the muscles to atrophy.
  • Going barefoot (or in barefoot shoes) leads to a more natural walk including a mid-foot strike rather than the heel-strike often seen with cushioned shoes. (source)
  • Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen and may reduce injuries, such as calf pulls or Achilles tendinitis caused by short, tight tissues.(source)

Surprisingly, it appears that the natural walk that occurs without shoes actually has physiological effects on the body beyond just the motion of the legs and feet: “A recent article in 2011 in the International Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that when you run barefoot there is a 5.7% lower oxygen cost on the body and “ that at 70% of VO2 max pace barefoot running is more economical than running shod (with shoes)… and there is a more than a 10% increase step rate.”  (Carey Rothchild, National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal volume 34).”

Spending time barefoot outside has additional benefits thanks to the direct contact with the earth:

“Our bodies are made up of about 60 percent water, which is great for conducting electricity. The earth has a negative ionic charge. Going barefoot grounds our bodies to that charge. Negative Ions have been proven to detoxify, calm, reduce inflammation, synchronize your internal clocks, hormonal cycles and physiological rhythms. The best places to get some negative ions through your feet are by the water. Everyone knows how good it feels to be barefoot on the beach – now we know why!”

[Read more about the benefits of earthing/grounding here, including how to get these benefits while sleeping!]

Best Barefoot Alternatives

While in an ideal world, we would all have the chance to walk around barefoot in perfectly soft green grass every day, this certainly isn’t always the case (though if you can- go for it!).

For those of us used to wearing cushioned, protective and heeled shoes, switching to barefoot and barefoot alternatives requires a careful adjustment period to make sure that the muscles of the feet and legs have time to adjust.

I certainly don’t recommend jumping in to barefoot running (or running in barefoot shoes) without working up to it by barefoot walking and correcting any form problems (like heel strike). Why not? Personal experience… I was so excited when I got my first pair of five fingers that I decided to go sprinting… on cement… A week of sore ankles later, and I don’t recommend jumping in cold turkey!

Thankfully, there are some great barefoot and minimalist shoe options available, and even some that allow grounding/earthing! Below are a few of my favorites that I’ve tried personally. They are in order from most supportive/least barefoot to the most natural/barefoot. I’ve tried to also include options that are feasible for different occasions as even though I love five fingers, they certainly aren’t the best for church, or business dinners, etc.

Healthy shoe review New Balance Minimus Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Minimus

New Balance Minimus are the most “normal” of the minimalist shoes I’ve tried. They look like a regular running shoe but offer minimal cushion and support and don’t have a positive heel so that the wearer gets the effects of being barefoot. They are incredibly comfortable and unlike toe separating versions, don’t take much adjustment.

The are available in for women, men and even children. My favorite and the black ones pictured above are the trail running variety, but the yellow shoes in the group above are also minimus.

Pros: Looks more normal. Incredibly comfortable. Lots of color options. Available for all ages. Protects feet from sharp objects on ground

Cons: No toe separation. Blocks feet from direct contact (grounding) with the earth. Not wearable in all situations.

Verdict: Pretty good in general and great for beginners just switching to barefoot or those wanting to get the benefits without all the weird looks.

Do your shoes have toes healthy shoe review Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Five Fingers

Vibram Five Fingers are still probably my favorite barefoot shoe, especially the komodo sport version. Yes, they look a little strange and aren’t optimal for every situation, but they offer toe separation and foot protection. I personally don’t mind the weird looks and “why are you wearing toe socks” comments, and use them as an opportunity to explain the benefits of being barefoot, but they aren’t for everyone. They also don’t go very well with skirts or dress clothes (though my hubby has black ones that he has worn to several formal events…).

Pros: Toe separation, Very comfortable. Lots of options. Protects feet. No artificial support or cushioning.

Cons: Look “weird.” Block feet from direct contact with earth. Not optimal for all situations. Can be difficult to get toes in at first.

Verdict: Pretty good. One of my favorites, but not for everyone.

Toms

Though not specifically designed as a minimalist shoe, Toms are actually a decent option for those wanting a “normal” looking shoe that doesn’t offer too much cushion or have a positive heel. They are also incredibly comfortable, and apparently pretty popular right now. I like that they also donate shoes to those in need around the world. Toms certainly aren’t the best option, but for someone looking for a good compromise they offer some of the benefits without being too weird.

Pros: No positive heel. Minimal arch support. Protect the feet. Lots of options.

Cons: Not for working out. Block feet from direct contact with the earth. Do have some cushioning and won’t necessarily help correct a heel strike.

Verdict. Ok, but not great.

Grounding and earthing shoe review Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Juil Earthing Shoes

I must admit… I absolutely love flip flops. They have been my go-to shoe for years, and in warmer months, they are often all I wear. That being said, they do require un-natural foot movement to keep them on your feet, so from a barefoot/minimal perspective, they aren’t ideal. I did finally find a brand that is moderately supportive but doesn’t have a positive heel and it has a huge added benefit: it builds in the benefits of earthing/grounding by using copper conductive inserts in the soles.

I would never give up flip flops, so Juil flip flops are a good compromise for me. Even better, they now come in dressier options like patent leather, gold and copper, so they can be worn with sun-dresses and fancier outfits, or with jeans and shorts.

Unlike the other shoes I’ve listed so far, these also allow electric contact with the earth, so they are especially good for times when I’ll be outside and standing on the ground. Juil also offers closed toe clog versions which are the only earthing/grounding shoes I’ve seen that are suitable for cold months.

Pros: Allow direct contact with the earth. Minimally cushioned and minimal heel. Much more versatile.

Cons: Not a strictly “barefoot” shoe and does require gripping.

Verdict: Good. A great option for flip flop lovers and has the added bonus of the grounding.

Healthy shoe options grounding minimalist shoes Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Earth Runners

I recently got a chance to try a minimalist/grounding shoe that is truly the best of both worlds for those who are serious about foot health. Earth Runners combine minimalist design with grounding for a shoe that reminds me of what might have been worn long ago. These shoes are actually made by hand according to your foot trace to get a perfect fit and have a non-cushioned minimal sole and added copper grounding elements.

These certainly aren’t for everyone, but I definitely see them being one of my favorites this summer. Since they are designed specifically to my foot, they are incredibly comfortable and I actually love the look of them (they remind me of a greek sandal, especially since mine lace up…)

Pros: Minimalist. No positive heel. No cushion or arch. Grounding/earthing benefits included.

Cons: Style may not be for everyone and won’t be optimal for every opportunity.

Verdict: Great for both grounding and barefoot walking. I’m planning to try running in them as soon as it warms up a little and as soon as I’m not super-pregnant!  Are Your Shoes Healthy?

Have you tried any of these shoes? What are your favorite shoes and why? On board with the barefoot trend? Share below!

Reader Comments

  1. Bethany Simunich says

    Isn’t walking barefoot only good for “natural” surfaces like soil, sand, etc? I thought the larger issue is we cannot properly walk barefoot on cement, asphalt, etc. because there is not “give” to the surface.

      • Lindsay Carlson says

        I would say most people did not walk on hard packed earth and rock all the time, though. And if you haven’t been roaming barefoot on those type of surfaces since you learned to walk, it might be in your best interest to transition slowly. :)

  2. Michelle Clark says

    Well I’m glad to know that I’m not actually messing up my feet. My mom used to always nag me about my shoes not having enough support and that I’d get foot problems. I’ve always worn shoes like flip flops or flimsy flats with no arch support. I’ll definitely have to look into the minimal running shoes. I have some pretty majorly supportive ones and I think they are what makes my feet/calves hurt after a run. I never had a problem until I got “properly fitted” running shoes. And I love Toms! They are super comfy.

  3. says

    In looking to help my MIL who has very damaged feet from using inserts and support her whole life, I came across “correct toes” (google it), which space your toes out, when barefoot, or fit inside of wide toe box shoes. The videos on their website show how the toe spacing corrects the arch falling, and reverses bunions, and reverses permanently squished toes, and morton’s neuroma, etc. It recreates the foot that the shoes molded, slowly pushing the bones back into the optimal position they had before they were damaged. It has also been studied for helping elderly people improve their balance (reducing hip fractures from falls). I suggest it for those whose feet are already very damaged.

  4. loco4xolos@ymail.com says

    I bought my first pair of Converse (orange ones!) to go with the Hawaiian shirts that were the uniform at my last job… I soon had 8 colorful pair and wore them daily in spite of being on my feet for 9-10 hours walking around a concrete floored, retail store… At first they hurt a bit, but soon I’d adapted… Glad to know that I was actually doing the right thing!!!

  5. angela says

    I really want to purchase the Hera to be my summer shoe. The fitting suggestion says “accommodating to a wider foot” .

    I was hoping you could give me some insight….I have a narrow foot and am now wondering if this would be a good shoe for me. Do you by chance have a narrow foot? And if you do have a narrow foot, I am assuming they are just fine since you say they’re your favorite. Thx!

  6. says

    Great article!! I love my Vibrams. My cool sister turned me onto them when i confessed that every running shoe i tried made the balls of my feet fall asleep. Now I wear my vibrams everywhere except church!

  7. Alchemist says

    yet another great article! Way to go!!!! your blog is such a blessing in my life. Thank you for sharing your findings!!!

  8. Brenda says

    thanks for the info, looking into new shoes for summer. I was hoping there would be some info here for us who have to wear steel toes boots to work. I currently wear Dr. Martens and they have a low heel ( for boots) so I guess that’s a good start!

  9. says

    I love Toms! So glad they made the list.
    The chiro I work for just talked me into orthotics. I had a feeling these things would probably worsen the problem over time and cause me to be dependent on them, but he assured me that there was no fixing the problem anyhow. What am I supposed to do with these orthotics now? Especially the pair I bought for my running shoes . Grrr.

    • Lindsay Carlson says

      I know this is but the anecdote of one fat lady, but I got orthotics from my chiropractor years ago when I was a runner and it did nothing but cause more issues. I eventually developed a full on case of plantar fasciitis and a problem with my knee on the same foot. I went to see a podiatrist, who gave me a pair of custom orthotics (Well I shouldn’t say “gave” since they were $600!) and I continued to run and my foot continued to deteriorate to the point where just walking for 20 minutes is tortuously painful. Recently I discovered the only shoe I can walk in for any length of time without pain in an old, beat up flip flop – the heel is soft, but not that soft, and there’s barely any arch support.

      As far as what to do with the orthotics, if they’re custom made, not much you can really do. You could try them and see if they are helpful for awhile?

      • sharon Chisholm says

        Thank you for mentioning that you also had plantar fasciitis and a knee problem as well since that’s what happened to me. Just thought I was falling apart! But I also have high arches and can only wear flat shoes. My Sanuks are great! Thanks again!

  10. says

    I’ve worn orthotics for over 30 years. Started when I was 10 or so. My arches are very high, and I’ve always picked the flattest shoes I can find. Barefoot hurts me terribly. However, I recently went to the good feet store. They want me to spend $1000 for their system. This is interesting at least. I don’t know if I could do it.

  11. says

    I love my Five Fingers! I go barefoot most of the time. However, as someone who wore black Five Finger Sprints with a black and white dress to my rehearsal dinner (my mom vetoed my blue ones as the “something blue” for the wedding the next day) I think they go quite nicely for dressy occasions! ;)

  12. Jamie Page says

    I think you should add some VIVOBAREFOOT shoes to your list!

    It’s interesting that you have toe separation as a good thing! It’s quite unnatural for your toes to be separated in that way and it doesn’t makes sense from a thermal protection point of view. Your toes need to be free to splay and recoil so they can offer maximum natural shock absorption.

  13. Andy Gladish says

    I do love my OluKai laceups.
    What about those of us who work standing up on hard surfaces? Something with a neutral footbed and some thickness to the sole might be really nice.

  14. says

    Thanks for the info! Do they make any of these shoes with non woven fabric uppers? I work at a hospital and we are require to have a shoe without a fabric upper to protect our feet from needles and such. But it would be nice to wear a shoe that keeps my joints healthy when I’m on my feet for 8 hours at work!

  15. timo says

    Sorry to nit-pick a very helpful review, but I was under the impression that the NB minimus does have a very slightly elevated heel–something like 4mm. I had a couple pairs that I found very helpful during the early stages of moving toward barefoot, but as I grew more accustomed to it, I started noticing even that little bit encouraged a little bit of heel strike. It was a good transition shoe, though.

    • Jennifer Matthews says

      I really really love them. My whole family wears them. They have amazing costumer service. If you order a pair and they don’t fit, you just mail them back and they send you whatever size you wanna try next. You are only out the shipping! My daughter has a range of thier shoes. I have their mary janes and boots, and my partner has the dash run amocks (he got them in black and wears them to work).

  16. Laura says

    I am just so happy I came across your website !!! You are a daily inspiration to me, and I thank you so much for the time you invest in this ! I am just starting up a family and you have given me great ambitions! Keep it up :)

  17. Alison says

    Good post! I think a lot of people will find this very helpful when trying to find new footwear. I just started wearing the New Balance Minimus and love them to death. They’re so comfortable, yet don’t force me to rely on them, and do feel that my feet are getting better at walking and careful stepping. My favorite thing about them is the wide toe-box. I always have trouble finding shoes that don’t crowd my toes, but this time there was no doubt in my mind that my toes would be okay in the shoes. They were affordable, too.

  18. says

    Oh I have serious want happening now for the juil flip flops! Super cute with the earthing tubes! I May have to save up for these, but since I spend all summer in flips, these look like a winner!

  19. says

    Ah. I have always loved walking around barefoot. In fact, it’s the first that happens when I get home from work…shoes get removed. It matters not if I have to wander around the front to potty the puppy or pick up the mail…take the wash out… I prefer to be without shoes. I am looking forward to testing out your shoe recommendations for when I absolutely must wear them. =) Thanks!

  20. Deron says

    As an former athlete, I’ve noticed a huge difference in strength , balance , and coordination of core and lower body from running barefoot. I recommend everyone to do so! however; treat the muscles in your foot like any other muscle. Too much and you’ll be aching for weeks!

  21. Victoria H says

    I have a wide foot with a very high arch. I have had injections, foot surgery and paid for expensive orthopedic inserts. None of these gave me much relief for bad cases of bone spurs and tight tendons. But one day, about 10 years ago, I bought a pair of Birkenstocks. They may not be everyones cup of fashion tea, but the relief is amazing. I wear only Birkenstocks 24/7. If I do ever wear other shoes or need to go bear foot for extended periods of time, the pain is still there. So I put on the Birkenstocks and I’m pain free by the end of the day.

    • Trina says

      I LOVE my Birkenstocks. I have the sandal types and the clog types for winter. I have some pretty serious knee issues and my orthopaedic surgeon told me I was wearing the best shoes I could for my knee issues. I have 6 sandal type Birkenstocks, and 2 or 3 clog type styles. I still have quite a bit of knee pain, but I’d almost bet it would be way worse in regular shoes!

  22. Katie Nelson says

    Hi :) I love. Being barefoot when I am able and will be switching to a barefoot show as soon as I can. (Actually I have a pair of TOMS on the way) but my son who is two has to wear AFOs (for ankle support) but he is barefoot beside when we are in public. Do you think possibly keeping him barefoot or in barefoot shoes will help strengthen his ankles?

  23. JustSippinTea says

    I love the lace up look of your earth runners. How long ago did you get them? I can’t seem to find them their website.

  24. Laura says

    Do you have any insight on flat-footed folks? My husband is a runner and flat-footed. It seems like the barefoot thing would make sense for people with “normal” (I hate to use that word, but I think you get what I’m going for here) feet, but perhaps people with arches on the extremes would struggle. Do you know any articles you could point me toward about runners for flat-footers?

  25. cecilia says

    i got my first pair of five fingers and have a question. it feels like my baby toe is squished in there, but when i take my foot out, my baby toe looks exactly how it feels, but it feels uncomfortable. any ideas? is this normal or do i need to change sizes? my other toes are fine.

  26. Mira Kuhs Bryan says

    Does anyone know where to get baby/toddler grounding shoes? I know barefeet is the best but once it gets cold, I probably need to put something on my 12 month old!

  27. Lindsay Carlson says

    I find that if the surface is really hard (like the laminate floors in my house) I cannot walk around on them all day without developing some serious heel/plantar pain. I feel like I need a middle ground at least for awhile – something a bit cushy, not necessarily having any lift on the heel. Any suggestions? I am fairly overweight, so I suspect that is a lot of the issue I’m having.

  28. Ryan Allen says

    What about boots or shoes for colder climates? I live in New England and it is to cold half of the year to wear open or thin shoes.

  29. Katie says

    I bought sneakers that have a Prop 65 cancer warning on them. I am wondering if the new balance sneaks you recommend have the same cancer warning? The company I bought from (Avia) says the cancer causing material is in the glue that holds the shoes together, and that many sneaker companies use the same glue, just don’t disclose it. Do you know anything about the Prop 65 status of the shoes you recommend? Thanks in advance Katie!

  30. Melissa Smith says

    Any thoughts on shoes for winter weather that fit the bill? Toms are just too… cold… and all the other options I’ve run across are really only useful in warm to moderate weather. I live in VT and the winters can be brutal. Help! :)

  31. homer says

    Classic Converse (not their new “get dirty” line) are the all-time classic flat foot shoes for men and women. If I wear shoes with an elevated heal my back hurts, but never when I wear Converse.

  32. Helen says

    my son, now 4yrs old has collapsed arches and has been wearing orthodics for a year. I did not feel good about getting them but also am no expert. he also does physical therapy to help strengthen the arches with exercise and stretches. anyone have any other ideas that could help?

  33. Nancy says

    Some of your comments make sense, others don’t. There’s no logical way that running on cement or other human-made surfaces would be good for your feet merely because ancient or indigenous people walked/walk/run barefoot on rocks and such. The two cannot be compared. Any nature-made surface, no matter how hard, is still going to have a level of porousness AND irregularity that human made surfaces are not going to possess.

    A huge part of the advantage of walking/running over natural surfaces is that your foot is being asked constantly to make endless, unexpected, random micro-adjustments. That doesn’t exist in human-made surfaces and is one of the reasons that walking/running on something like a treadmill (which has a completely uniform surface) is absolutely terrible for your feet and hips and knees and other parts of your body. Running barefoot or in minimalist shoes on a treadmill, for example, is not going to completely solve physical issues simply because the human body is not built to deal with the completely uniform nature of a treadmill surface.

  34. Kate says

    Could you tell me the brand of the last photo? I’ve been looking for a similar sandal for a long time and can’t find that style on either Juil or Earth Runners…probably an older style but just wanted to ask if it was a different brand.

  35. Jennifer says

    Hello! I stumbled upon your blog while researching shoes for a new job, working front desk at a hotel. I’m going to be on my feet, mostly just standing, not walking much, for an 8 hour shift, with breaks of course. I’m 43 and I am about 150 lbs overweight, and I am really concerned how I’m going to do this. I am not used to being on my feet, it’s been a long time since I’ve worked. I’ve been looking at various shoes with lots of cushion and support, then ran across this entry in your blog.

    Do you have any advice for me, as far as what kind of shoes I should try. They have to be black. Thank you in advance!!

  36. Anna says

    So all this sounds great in theory, and I so want to be able to agree, but why is it that I have gone barefoot most of every day for years (stay home mama, barefoot around the house and yard). And mostly in completely flat flip flops, flat ballet shoes, barefoot running shoes (Merrell), and Converse when I wear shoes, but my feet have been steadily getting worse in the past year or two? I’m only comfortable now in shoes with no raised heel, but with some arch (hard to find). Cushion isn’t such a big factor to me, but I can’t handle anything without an arch anymore. I am not a runner, but as a mama I spend a lot of time on my feet, walking, standing, getting up and down from the floor, lifting children etc. I am currently pregnant, and all my foot issues are magnified. I’m not being contentious, just curious. I really like the idea of staying close to barefoot, and it makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m confused about what I’ve experienced.

    • L.R. Denton says

      This information may be practical for 105 lb. Ethiopian and Kenyan males and females but does not relate to out of shape, oversized and overweight 21 century Americans. Yes, if our walking paths are plowed and disced fields, (actually very benefical for strengthening the ankle’s side-to-side motion against sprains)… or on sandy beaches..(great for increasing calf and thigh strength),, or on thick grassy lawns..(theraputic values) or dusty footpaths..then your colleague’s analysis is spot on. However, those conditions are not realistic for the vast majority of 1st world nations who’s reality is unnatural and unyielding walking surfaces. Perhaps one needs to simply consider the enormous pressure of a triangular driveway limestone rock when driven into the heel of a typical bare foot. This is the reality of our civilized world. I suggest searching out a great podiatrist might be the smartest move of those who buy into this analysis. L. Ray Dent, ret practAnal Eng.

  37. Heather says

    Dear Mama,

    I need to know what are the best kind of shoes my husband should wear for Housekeeping at the Hotel and Casino job he is at. Will you please send a picture as well. Thank you for your time.

    Heather

  38. Claudia Balzac says

    The Minimus shoes look comfortable, with plenty of cooling ventilation which probably help prevent odors and infection. But wearing copper inserts in the soles of the shoes? Stick a penny in your shoes if you believe there’s any genuine health benefits.

    If I’m ever caught outside in a lightning storm, I can only hope someone else not too nearby has chosen to provide a solid ground to earth.

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