Friday, January 14, 2011

The Difference A Worldview Makes

A largely unknown reality of scientific research is that facts do not speak for themselves. Rather, they are interpreted within a framework called a paradigm, or worldview. Everyone has a worldview, and our worldview flavors the way we interpret information. Our worldview is largely formulated by the culture in which we find ourselves living. Scientists, though trained to be unbiased, are not immune to their culturally-induced worldviews.

For example, in a 2008 study researchers at Auburn University concluded that flip-flops were orthopedically hazardous.* While the research they performed was top-notch, I believe their conclusions were erroneous because their starting assumption – derived from their worldview – was mistaken.

What is their faulty assumption? That walking shod is natural. While they don’t explicitely state this assumption in their reports, it appears evident to me based on their conclusions.

The Auburn team observed that wearing flip-flops causes “sore feet, ankles and legs.” Indeed, this is often true when shoe-wearing people switch to flip-flops in the summer (it’s sometimes called ‘flip-flop-itis’). Auburn researcher Justin Shroyer notes, “We found that when people walk in flip-flops, they alter their gait, which can result in problems and pain from the foot up into the hips and lower back.” Mr. Shroyer is absolutely correct in that wearing flip-flops alters the human gait; what I believe he fails to recognize is that the alteration is a change back to the natural. Constant shoe-wearing had previously altered the subject’s gait to an unnatural one. Switching to flip-flops does cause pain in some people because the walker is returning to a more natural gait – one to which s/he is not accustomed.

Mr. Shroyer and his colleagues also observed that walking in flip-flops led to shorter steps (i.e., shorter stride lengths) compared to wearing athletic shoes. And he found that, in flip-flops, walkers’ heels hit the ground with less vertical impact force and they tend to grip more with their toes during push-off. These findings are consistent with those of other researchers in the field of foot biomechanics; however, the changes were considered abnormal and negative by the Auburn research team. Scientists are now realizing that these barefoot (and flip-flop) induced changes in walking lead to lower impact forces and less stress to leg joints than shod walking (due primarily to shock absorption by the arch and gait adjustments from tactile feedback), and this is generally recognized as a good thing. In addition, the Auburn researchers imply that it’s unnatural to use the toes for push-off and they don’t acknowledge that chronic shoe-wearing is responsible for the shortened tendons and weak muscles that cause the pain flip-flop users feel in the first place. Instead, because they apparently regard the shod gait as natural, they label flip-flops as “bad” and caution folks against wearing them. This is a logical conclusion if you start with the assumption that walking in shoes is natural. If instead you assume that barefoot walking is the natural condition, then the conclusion you draw from their study is very different.

The Auburn study was performed in 2008. In 2011 we now realize that comparing the 'flip-flop' gait to the 'shod' gait is the wrong comparison. Instead, we should be comparing the 'flip-flop' and 'shod' gaits to the 'barefoot' gait. When we do that, we see that walking in flip-flops is more like walking barefoot and is therefore the healthier shoe option.

Different Assumptions = Different Conclusions


Interpretation #1
(assuming shod gait is natural)

Interpretation #2
(assuming barefoot gait is natural)

1.  wearing flip-flops resulted in pain in feet, ankles, hips and legs

walking in flip-flops causes abnormal & painful changes in gait

walking in flip-flops mimics barefoot walking & reveals unnatural shoe-induced changes in gait

2. wearing flip-flops resulted in shorter stride lengths

long strides should occur (predominantly in front of the body’s center of gravity?)

short strides should occur (predominantly below and behind the body’s center of gravity?)

3. wearing flip-flops resulted in less heel impact forces

gait pattern should be heel-to-toe and heel should take most impact (like in a shoe)

gait pattern should be short leading to landing flatter on arch which absorbs impact forces (as when barefoot)

4. wearing flip-flops resulted in more toe-gripping action

the body should roll on the forefoot into the next step.  (function of the toe appendages?)

the toes grip the ground as the body is pushed into the next step; flip-flops may induce unnatural toe gripping


Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 - The Year of Barefoot Living?

Last year was a banner year for barefooting. Although Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run was released in 2009, I think it had its biggest impact on the world in 2010. This is probably because the book was published in July; people spent the next few months (i.e., the winter 2009) reading the book and then put it into practice in spring 2010. That summer several more related books hit the market: Jason Robilliard’s The Barefoot Running Book and Michael Sandler’s Running Barefoot continued the running-barefoot-is-best theme, but my book, The Barefoot Book, took the concept a step further and demonstrated how shoes are not just harmful when running but also when walking, standing and when just plain wearing them. Like Born to Run, The Barefoot Book was published in the summer. Will the public, after a year of experimenting with barefoot running and a winter to contemplate barefoot living, be ready this summer to take barefooting beyond exercise and into daily life? I believe the answer is YES.

If 2010 was the Year of Barefoot Running, then I believe 2011 will be the Year of Barefoot Living. Maybe I’m just filled with New Year wishful thinking, but I truly believe the tide will turn this year with respect to going barefoot in public. I base this hope on several observations:

1/ The Barefoot Book is generating a lot of conversation. Since the release of the book, I have been interviewed by The Washington Post, Popular Science magazine and dozens of radio shows from New York to New Zealand. I’ve appeared on national and cable television, the Drudge Report and even a documentary in Korea. Clearly, people are interested in the topic of barefoot living and the mainstream media is picking up the conversation. Wow! [Most of these can be found at]

2/ Positive comments are on the rise. Every now and then an article appears online about some ‘barefooter’ or living barefoot. In keeping with the popularity of the subject, those articles usually generate a lot of reader comments. In 2010, there appeared to be more articles than ever on the subject and the comments seemed more positive than in the past (I haven’t done a rigorous study on this). My Washington Post article written by Daniel De Vise, for example, generated over 150 comments in just 48 hours. By contrast, the ten following articles written by De Vise obtained no more than 14 comments. The Today Show article about me garnered 128 comments and most of them were positive.

Online articles about barefooting still receive negative comments, but they are the same old comments we’ve seen for years (e.g., broken glass, dog poop, etc.). This time, however, those negative comments are being overwhelmed with intelligent responses debunking the myths. And when the article itself is negative, it gets slammed! The article “Poly students should eliminate barefoot trend” quickly received 26 responses, all which were critical of the article and in favor of barefooting.

3/ Barefoot running precedes barefoot living. In my own experience and that of many barefoot runners I know, barefoot running led to more barefoot living. It’s an obvious and natural next step. Once you experience the thrill of running barefoot you want to experience the thrill of driving barefoot, shopping barefoot and just living barefoot. No one denies that barefoot running went main stream last year. Will all those runners start going to the mall barefoot? No, but some will and all of them will be more open to the idea. And even those who don’t run see others running barefoot and so the idea that bare feet are okay in public is gaining traction.

The days are getting longer (in America) and summer is coming. Let’s make 2011 the Year of Barefoot Living!