Sunday, June 22, 2014

Elementary, My Dear Watson

My son introduced me to the BBC series SHERLOCK (available on Netflix) and I was immediately hooked. We quickly watched all the available episodes and anxiously awaited the most recent season with great anticipation. Upon its arrival we were disappointed only by the small number of episodes (more! Please!). Anyway, the TV series reignited my love for the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so I recently purchased the complete set of crime mysteries in two volumes (containing four novels and fifty-six short stories). I hadn’t read the original Holmes mysteries since my teen years, and while enjoying The Sign of Four I noticed something that went under my radar the first time I read it so many years ago:
     We clambered up through the hole [in the ceiling]. Holmes turned his light once more upon the footsteps in the dust.
     “I wish you particularly to notice these footmarks,” he said. “Do you observe anything noteworthy about them?”
     “They belong, “ I said, “to a child or a small woman.”
     “Apart from their size, though. Is there nothing else?”
     “They appear to be much as other footmarks.”
     “Not at all. Look here! This is the print of a right foot in the dust. Now I make one with my naked foot beside it. What is the chief difference?”
     “Your toes are all cramped together. The other print has each toe distinctly divided.”
     “Quite so. That is the point. Bear that in mind…”
A few pages later the mystery of the footprints is considered further. Says Holmes:
     “Now, do consider the data. Diminutive footmarks, toes never fettered by boots, naked feet, stone-headed wooden mace, great agility, small poisoned darts. What do you make of all this?”
     “A savage!” I exclaimed. “Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small.” 
That the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes deduced the effects of footwear on foot anatomy is not particularly amazing, but when we recall that our fictional detective springs from the mind of the mere mortal Conan Doyle our wonder is more deserved. Conan Doyle likely penned those words sometime in 1889 as The Sign of Four was published in February 1890. His astute observation was prolly aided by the fact that Doyle himself was a world-travelling medical doctor as well as the author of fictional crime mysteries. Still, the observation is treated as common-sense by both Holmes and Watson. Some 15 years later, in 1905, Dr. Phil Hoffman would publish a report in The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery  titled “Conclusions Drawn from a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-wearing Peoples”.  In that study, Hoffman methodically documented the foot deformities (both in anatomy and functionality) caused by footwear. The figure above is taken from this study. To my knowledge, Hoffman’s report is the first rigorous scientific investigation on the impact of shoes on feet, but once again, it appears that Sherlock Holmes was one step ahead of the experts. Sadly, more than 100 years later, most people - including most podiatrists - still don't have a clue that shoes cause so many foot problems and that going barefoot is good and healthy for your feet. Indeed, they firmly believe that shoes are "modern necessities" and feet will suffer irreparable harm without them.


What's more, after all these years the most common deduction about someone who goes barefoot remains "A savage!"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Barefoot Hiking: Why & How

It’s summer! Days are hot, but the trail is shady and cool. Long days meander slowly into evening. It is the season for hiking and what better way to experience nature than hiking barefoot?

Yes. Barefoot!

If you’ve only hiked in big, bulky hiking boots, then I’ve got a treat for you. Lose the shoes and experience the trail with your toes. Doing so will completely transform your hiking experience. It’s as if you’ve only seen the forest in black-and-white, but soon it will flood your senses in full color! And don’t worry, it’s completely safe even for the novice if you take just a few common-sense precautions.

Barefoot hiking is one of those quintessential simple pleasures of life. Like all of the other ‘best things in life’ it is free, requires little preparation, and is like a reset button for your soul. For myself and many others, hiking barefoot is therapy. In an utterly unique way it reconnects you to Nature and Nature’s God. In addition to the emotional and psychological benefits of walking shoeless through nature, there are tangible physical benefits, too. Some studies suggest that hiking barefoot boosts the immune system by exposing you to non-pathological soil bacteria. Tannins in fallen leaves give your soles that leathery toughness so essential for comfortably walking barefoot.

Not only is hiking barefoot good for you, it is better for the environment than hiking shod. I can lead a troop of twenty barefoot hikers down a trail and do less damage to the path than a single rambler in ‘hiking boots’.  The bare foot leaves almost no trace after passing through a trail, but hiking boots trample plant life and leave deep imprints in the dirt.

If you’d like to try your hand at barefoot hiking, here are some tips to ensure the experience is enjoyable.

·         If one exists in your area, consider joining a barefoot hiking group. If no group exists near you, you might want to start one!
·         Choose a trail that is smooth and mostly dirt or pine needles. Rocks and roots are fine for those with experience and tough feet but are usually uncomfortable for the tender-footed novice.
·         Avoid (or be very careful) crossing streams and rivers. The mountain stream may, ironically, be the only place a shod hiker might remove their shoes, but it happens to be the most dangerous place to do so. Muddy waters hide real hazards like broken glass, shards of metal, and other dangerous litter. I have hiked hundreds of miles barefoot and the only quasi-serious injury I’ve received is from broken glass in a river. My motto: “Don’t Step Down Where You Can’t See The Ground.” Be careful in rivers!
·         Trim your toenails. Keeping your toenails short will prevent you from snagging a nail on the trail.
·         If you are allergic to poison ivy, you obviously want to avoid the plant. I am allergic to this stuff, but in my experience if I rinse my feet and legs soon after returning home from the trail, then I can avoid breaking out with hives.
·         Wear shorts or capris. Keep your feet and ankles free.
·         Watch your step and don’t drag your feet. Shuffling your feet on the ground is a good way to get cut or stub your toes.
·         Take along some bandages and tweezers. Especially if you are new to barefoot hiking you should expect some cuts and bruises. Rest assured, most injuries can be avoided by simply paying attention, and the more experience you have hiking barefoot the less likely you are to get injured. I must confess, I usually don’t carry these items with me anymore unless I’m leading new barefoot hikers.
·         Check for ticks upon your return. In my experience, you are far less likely to pick up ticks when your skin is exposed (bare feet and shorts) than when your skin is hidden away in shoes and long pants, but you still should check yourself.
·         Keep hydrated. This has nothing to do with feet per se but is good hiking sense!

I hope you will give barefoot hiking a try. Believe me, it is transformational. J

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Education Crisis

Note: This blog is usually about foot health and barefooting, but since I am the Barefoot PROFESSOR, I am devoting this post to the crisis of education in America.

I recently came across an 8th grade graduation test from 1912. I will discuss the test more in a moment, but first I want to point out that in 1912 most people were expected to finish the 8th grade, but only a few of them would continue their studies through high school, and fewer still would dream of college. I mention this because education in America is in a crisis – both higher education and secondary education, but for different reasons.

First, higher education.

Higher education in America is in a crisis largely because of cronyism. Cronyism is when government beds with industry in a way that undermines free-market capitalism. The result of cronyism is always the same: higher prices and lower product quality. In the case of higher education, our federal government really busied itself with universities for the first time during World War II (with the development of the atom bomb) and federal research funding quickly transformed the meaning and business of colleges.  Previously a high-risk venture that often failed, colleges became much more secure with a constant influx of federal research dollars. Then, in the 1970’s, the federal government began subsidizing student loans and since that time college tuition rates have skyrocketed – far outpacing inflation – and the education has arguably degenerated. The problem created by government interference is now so bad that government will soon feel compelled to “step in” and take over higher education completely. This is evident by several observations, the most recent being a move by president Obama to rate colleges to “make sure that federal student aid money is well-spent.”[1]

One of the best football coaches in history, Vince Lombardi, was famous for starting each season by going back to the basics, holding out a football to his professional players and stating flatly: “This is a football.” Perhaps it’s time we went back to the basics with respect to higher education:

“This is a college.”

What is the purpose of college? Today, roughly 30% of the population in the United States holds a bachelor’s degree.[2] If that number seems low to you, consider that in 1912 only one in four hundred Americans went to college and even by 1940 only 5% of the population held a bachelor’s degree. Prior to the 20th century, college was a calling. Of course, you had to be academically gifted to succeed, but only a fraction of the intellectually smart-enough actually went to college. Most professions didn’t demand a degree and the earnings one lost to spend four years on campus was enough to dissuade most people from going. Those who did go to college were obtaining the highest education possible and were expected to contribute highly, as well. The 19th century and early 20th century was a gilded age for higher education and the world was being conquered by the Bohrs, Mendeleevs, Paulings and Einsteins that occupied the ivory towers. Notably, college was not then and never was only for the rich. Funds were available for those with the intellectual prowess and the calling to obtain higher education. It was also during those years – perhaps in part because of the success of great academicians (Einstein was the world’s first celebrity-scientist) – that college admission began to boom. No doubt this was also fueled by the industrial revolution. Regardless, more and more people wanted to be a part of the higher education scene and universities were being viewed in a different light by the public at large. Over the next one hundred years, more and more jobs would require a college degree and, remember, by the 1940’s Uncle Sam was getting involved. Now, in 2014, going to college is expected of most Americans and we have a president who wants “college for all.”

But perhaps college was never meant to be for all. Perhaps college for many is nothing more than a diversion robbing them of their most creative and energetic years. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the percentage of folks with a college degree and the economic success of a nation. [3] Bill Gates provides a great example of a young man who started college simply because it was expected of him, but found his true calling outside the classroom and never graduated. Mark Zuckerberg is another. Most people, however, spend five years drudging through classes only to leave with a $100,000 piece of paper and the expectation of a job. A job which may or may not actually exist.

College was never meant to prepare one for a job. Trade schools prepare one for a job. And yet that is now the expected role of college from our students, our government, and even most of our college administrators. The university is no longer a place to prepare the few for a life of science, or literature, or the clergy, or to be the bearers of knowledge and wisdom for the counsel of kings and governments. It’s to prepare the masses for a job.

Perhaps “college for all” is a very bad idea. Perhaps even one-third of the population having a college degree is too high, unless college in 2014 is not what college was in 1914. And there is the crux of the matter. I submit that it is not. College today is the high school of yesteryear.

Which brings me to the crisis in secondary education. Virtually no one denies that secondary education in America is in serious trouble. We spend roughly 3x more money per pupil on secondary education than the next highest nation, and yet our ranking in the world continues to drop. Our students currently rank 30th in math test scores. [4] There are TWENTY-NINE other nations that outcompete our students in math! Again, I blame government intrusion that undermines a free marketplace and, perhaps even more culpable, the teachers union. Regardless, we are slipping on the world stage, and we are slipping compared to our own grandparents.

Which brings me back to the 8th grade graduation test from 1912. That test is HARD. Very few adults today with a bachelor’s degree could answer those questions. I certainly stumbled over several of them, especially the American history questions which surprised me because I LOVE American history! Even more interesting than the test itself is how the website prepares the modern reader for his imminent feeling of stupidity. “Remember to smile a little while reading this exam” we are forewarned. “Smile. We are all learning from this test.” Indeed, we are learning how much dumber we are now than an 8th grader in 1912.

Looking over the educational landscape of the past 100 years, it appears that in America college is the new high school. And as secondary education continues to get watered down while college education focuses on job preparation, neither of them are teaching students to think as well as 8th graders in 1912. Indeed, they are not even teaching the facts of our own history and culture so desperately needed by a nation that governs itself.

But every kid knows how to use a condom.


2. Surprisingly, the exact number seems hard to pin down as every source I checked gave significantly different numbers, from as low as 17% to as high as 33%. Most gave 25-30%.

The 8th grade test:

Monday, April 21, 2014

From Opinion To Observation: More Evidence That Going Barefoot Is Best For Your Feet

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that walking and running barefoot can actually reverse some of the damage done to your feet by footwear. Specifically, several podiatrists and scientists have reported a rise in arch height due to walking and/or running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes). In this post I review the observations that have been made by others and add my own data to the mix.

Back in 2011, Dr. Nirenberg reported on his blog ( that he was seeing foot arches rise in a patient as a result of barefoot running. The 41-year old male had worn conventional shoes prior to making the switch to running barefoot. He also ditched his shoes for most daily activities and adopted a largely barefoot lifestyle. Dr. Nirenberg captured a stunning set of footprints that document the changes to his feet.

More recently, Dr. Nick Campitelli reported a similar finding on his blog. His two-year study demonstrates dramatic changes in the arch height and ankle-foot alignment of a 34-year old woman after she switched to minimalist shoes for running. Going minimalist not only raised her arches and aligned her foot and ankle bones, but it alleviated her knee pain.

In my own study, I’ve been observing a 48-year old male transition from typical shoe use to barefoot living – both for running and walking during his daily routine. At work, this individual switched to using minimalist shoes. Although he stated he had flat feet “all his life”, his feet began to change after adopting a barefoot lifestyle. Below are the footprints I acquired from this individual over a 4 ½ year period beginning with his adoption of a barefoot lifestyle in 2009.

There are several published methods to quantify arch heights, but several years ago I devised my own method called the transverse arch index (TAI). A TAI value less than 1 indicates a high arch while a TAI value greater than 1 indicates a low arch. After switching to a barefoot lifestyle, this individual’s TAI value decreased a staggering 81% from 5.2 (a very low arch) at the start of the study to 1.0 (average arch) four years later. Much of the change occurred in the first 2 ½ years.

In my opinion, and I believe Drs. Nirenberg and Campitelli would agree, shoes are casts that immobilize the foot and weaken the musculature and ligaments of the foot. Because those muscles and ligaments support the arch and properly align the 52 bones in the feet and ankles, some have speculated that the overuse of shoes – especially during exercise that involves walking or running – is a major source of many of the ailments that plague our feet. Indeed, footwear is likely responsible for more than flat feet and fallen arches, they have been implicated as a major contributor to bunions, Hallux valgus, plantar fasciitis, neuropathy, athlete’s foot, toenail fungus, ingrown toenails, and hammer toes.

Personally, I believe that simply eschewing the shoe and walking barefoot is the single best thing you can do for the health of your feet. Heretofore, that opinion was based mainly on the premise that the human foot is designed well for its functions and that man-made footwear, while useful in some situations, is largely disruptive and impedes those functions. Happily, we are now acquiring a growing body of empirical evidence that validates that opinion, such as the results presented in these three case studies.

I think it’s important to recognize two realities: 1) we typically wear shoes for cultural reasons, not physical or biomechanical reasons, often even when we think otherwise. And 2) shoes often do more harm than good to our feet. Once you become fully aware of those two points, the solution to our foot woes becomes obvious: remove the shoes and go barefoot much more often. Fortunately, more and more people are connecting the dots and kicking off their shoes in response. Going barefoot in public is becoming more common as people realize the damage that shoes can cause our feet and the healthy benefits of leaving them at home. Furthermore, going barefoot is quickly being recognized as just another individual lifestyle choice in our increasingly diverse society. So, do your feet a favor, take off your shoes and walk barefoot! Not only does it feel good, it’s good for you. And there’s science to back that up!

Daniel Howell, Ph.D.

PS. In addition to these studies, I am aware through personal communication of other studies by top-notch scientists which make the same general conclusions, but they have not at this time publicly announced their findings. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Alliance Gets A Make-over

What was formerly known as The Primalfoot Alliance has now become The Barefoot Alliance. I and several others have worked closely with the alliance for years, but the organization is run primarily by its founder, Michael Buttgen. Michael has done a fantastic job using the alliance to promote barefooting to the general public, which still remains largely “podophobic” in much of the United States. We have been discussing the name change for a long time, but the time has now arrived for The Barefoot Alliance to emerge from its trans-formative cocoon as a “new creature,” as Michael puts it.

The Barefoot Alliance exists to encourage the acceptance and practice of going shoeless more often and in more places. The reasons for going barefoot include improved health, increased comfort, and expanded personal freedom. Most people really like the idea! Those of us in the barefooting community hear it frequently:

“I’d go barefoot all the time if it was socially acceptable.”

If so many people are saying this, how can going barefoot in public not be socially acceptable? Do people say one thing in private but then behave differently in public? Maybe sometimes, but I think the barefoot-friendly majority is largely forced into shoe-compliance by a foot-phobic minority. But for a growing number of people the discomfort and health issues from constantly wearing footwear are pushing them to overcome the social resistance and simply live barefoot more often. After all, it's not illegal or unethical to simply walk around barefoot! At The Barefoot Alliance, we would like to see going barefoot as common Рand blas̩ Рas wearing shorts or a short-sleeved shirt on a warm day.

In many parts of the country things are starting to change. In my own hometown I personally experienced constant discrimination a few years ago when I first starting traipsing around barefoot in public, but after several years of confronting the discrimination much progress has been made. Indeed, I do not remember the last time I was escorted to an exit or even told I needed shoes, and I visit just as many big box stores, restaurants, and businesses as anyone else. If you try going out barefoot and meet resistance, I and The Barefoot Alliance want to encourage you to “keep on keeping on.” We want to provide you with resources to help you understand and communicate the legality and benefits of going barefoot. If you are persistent, you can change your community to make it more barefoot-friendly.

I believe strongly that the new branding for The Barefoot Alliance will greatly improve our ability to reach people about the health benefits and joys of simply living barefoot. Kick off your shoes and join us! There’s a revolution afoot.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Driving Barefoot

Is it illegal to drive barefoot in your home state?

I posed that question to my anatomy students at Liberty University recently and the answers were shocking but not surprising. Shocking because the vast majority of my 145 students – coming from all over the US – firmly believe a myth. Not surprising because…. well, it’s a prevalent myth.

In case you are wondering: YES, it is legal to drive without shoes in your state because it is legal to drive a car barefoot in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia). I spoke with some of those students after class. Interestingly, even though 2/3 of the class believed it was illegal to drive barefoot in their home state, they were often quick to accept that it might be legal in other states, but they were usually slow to be convinced it was legal in their state.  

The Society for Barefoot Living was formed in 1994. Other pro-barefoot organizations, like The Primalfoot Alliance and Living Barefoot Show, joined the scene more recently but have been around a few years now. Born to Run was released in 2009 and my book, The Barefoot Book, was published in 2010. Several books on barefoot running also hit the shelves in 2010-11. I would like to think that the public is becoming more informed on shoe/foot issues, but the results of my classroom poll clearly indicate that we still have a long way to go. I still have daily conversations with students who are amazed that I claim going barefoot is safe and healthier than wearing shoes, and the same old questions about germs, support, protection, etc., return afresh every semester with the sea of new faces.

But I’m encouraged. The barefooting movement is still young and many of my students are thrilled by what I say. They say they love going barefoot and they seem to love the idea of going barefoot, but unfortunately, I’ve not seen many “converts” to a barefoot lifestyle. Perhaps they are taking off their shoes more in private places, and I have seen more bare feet in public places, too. And, come to think of it, I can name a few real converts – hardcore ones that live almost entirely barefoot now. Undoubtedly, I’m just impatient. I want everyone to have that “A-ha” moment followed by a mass shoe-burning ceremony, but I’ll have to accept the baby steps. The wheels of change turn slowly. And for at least one class of 145 students, I can rest assured that they all know the truth that driving barefoot is perfectly legal!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Take on the FiveFingers Lawsuit

Several people have asked me what I think of the recent Vibram FiveFingers lawsuit, so here is my brief response. First, a disclaimer: I am not privy to the details of the suit. All I know is that someone has initiated a class-action lawsuit against Vibram over “deceptive and misleading health benefit claims” and injuries. So, here is what I think.

While I hold no love for FiveFingers or Vibram (as a company they are arrogant and aloof), I think the lawsuit is absolutely baseless. The complaint states that Vibram’s claims of “health benefits are false and deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide” and “FiveFingers may increase injury risk compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to barefoot running.” Thus, the complaint has two major allegations: 1/ Vibram has not proven that their shoes are healthier to use than conventional running shoes, and 2/ FiveFingers cause injuries.

Beyond what conventional running shoes provide?
The first allegation is laughable since consumers have spent billions of dollars on traditional running shoes in the past five decades and received untold numbers of injuries in exchange. The conventional shoe makers have spent virtually zero dollars on any research beyond marketing, and the independent scientists actually investigating the relationship between your body and running shoes have solid evidence that those traditional running shoes are the cause of many running injuries. Certainly, no major running shoe company has ever demonstrated scientifically that their shoes are “proven to provide health benefits,” so why is Vibram now being held to a higher standard? (In fact, there’s not even a single orthotic that has been proven to live up to its claims; podiatrists be warned). The filing continues: “false and misleading advertising campaign has allowed them to reap millions of dollars of profit at the expense of consumers they misled.” Again, laughable in light of the half-century of reaping by motion-controlled, ultra-padded, microchip-embedded shoe makers.

FiveFingers cause injuries
The second allegation has some merit in that FiveFingers can lead to injury, but Vibram has been careful to warn people of the risks so I doubt they can be held culpable. Experienced barefoot runners have from the beginning also cautioned people about the potential injures from using Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist shoes:

“I recommend all runners learn to run barefoot prior to adding minimalist shoes to their training routine. Learning to run barefoot first will allow you to learn good form and strenghthen yoru feet, legs, and other anatomy to help prevent injuries. While it is possible to learn to run in minimalist shoes first, the lack of tactile sensation with the ground will interfere with the process.”[emphasis added].  – Jason Robillad, The Barefoot Running Book

“The biggest challenge with FiveFingers is that you still don’t feel the ground nearly as much as you do when barefoot, so it’s easy to overdo it.” [emphasis added]. – Michael Sandler, Barefoot Running

“The Vibram FiveFingers is praised by many runners tired of traditional athletic trainers… However, some barefoot running experts warn that minimalist shoes may cause overuse injuries in new barefoot runners since they encourage a barefoot-type gait but reduce biofeedback from the foot sole.” [emphasis added]. – Daniel Howell, The Barefoot Book

In the above statement I was referring primarily to Barefoot Ken Bob, who says it saliently in his book, Barefoot Running Step-by-Step:

“Vibram FiveFingers… can be dangerous if not used properly. I am not totally against Vibrams… but beginning barefoot runners should simply not use them.” [emphasis in original]. – Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, Barefoot Running Step-by-Step

Again, Vibram has always concurred with these experts and cautioned new FiveFingers users accordingly, so I can’t see how Vibram is liable. So, the way I see it, shoes companies that have for decades promised the moon to runners with high-tech devices that alter gait and cause injuries are guiltless, while the company that tries to keep runners moving naturally and clearly warned customers of the hazards is culpable.

The most common injury I've seen from FiveFingers (and barefoot running), is TOFP ("Top Of Foot Pain"), or metatarsalgia. The pain seems to originate from microfractures in metatarsal bones and, if you keep running, can lead to a full-blown metatarsal break. Ironically, I do not blame Vibram (or barefoot running) on this injury, but the traditional shoe we've been wearing since childhood that has weakened our bones nearly to the point of debilitation. It takes years for those bones to strengthen after adopting barefoot or minimalist running. Not coincidentally, TOFP and metatarsal breaks usually occur after 1-2 years of barefoot running.

Hopefully, the end result of this lawsuit will be a more educated public with respect to their feet.