You Walk Wrong – Part 2

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New York Magazine features this article on the benefits of barefoot walking.  This article is packed with information will educate and encourage you to return to a more natural way of living and walking – barefoot in harmony with the Earth and your anatomy.

You Walk Wrong

How We’re Wrecking Our Feet With Every Step We Take — New York Magazine


(Read part 1 here)

I too have learned one thing—that if you’re interested in learning about barefoot walking, or the “barefoot lifestyle,” as it’s sometimes called, there are lots of people out there who are interested in teaching you. Websites like, the official site of the Society for Barefoot Living, will stridently explain that, for example, it is generally not illegal to drive barefoot, despite what you’ve heard. (This is true.) And that only a few state health departments forbid people from going barefoot in restaurants (also true), never mind all those signs that say no shirt, no shoes, no service, which are the handiwork of fascistic barefoot-haters.

Follow these enthusiasts too far, though, and you fall down a rabbit hole of eccentricity. While there are many legitimate and relatively non-cuckoo clubs for barefoot hiking across the country, my search for some walking–barefoot–in–New York City enthusiasts led me to barefoot, which led me to Keith (“I’m a 43-year-old man looking to meet new friends with my same interests”), which led me to “Dafizzle” (“I like dirty feet and want to meet others who love walking in the city with dirty feet”), which led me to Ricky (“I’m a 24-year-old male looking for females that like to have their feet played with”). Which led me to abandon my search for a barefoot-walking group in New York.

But any worries I have that Amy Matthews’s class will be consumed with flaky spirit quests or roving toe-fetishists are quickly dispelled as she pulls out a model of a skeletal foot. We spend the next hour learning about the 24 (or, for some people, 26) bones in the foot, from the calcaneus (heel bone) to the tips of our phalanges (toe bones). There’s so much information to absorb that, by the time we are back up and walking again, I’ve already more or less forgotten the distinction between the cuneiform and the cuboid. So it’s difficult for me to examine other people’s feet while they’re at a standstill, which is our next assignment. Which I figure is fine, given that, unlike the rest of these people, I consider myself a very accomplished walker. I mean, sure, I have occasional back pain, and okay, when I walk long distances, I feel a grinding pain in my hip that I never used to feel before. And, yes, when I visited Michael Bulger, a structural integrationist near Washington Park with an expertise in “Rolfing,” a kind of deep-tissue massage, and he Rolfed one of my feet, then had me walk around a bit for a before-and-after comparison, I felt, thanks to my un-Rolfed foot, like a pirate walking on a peg leg.

Still, I’m feeling pretty confident when it’s my turn to have my feet assessed. The other students examine. They confer. They seem concerned. Apparently, my ankle bones are stacked like a tower of Jenga blocks that’s about to topple.

Then Matthews sits splay-legged in front of me, puts her hand on my ankle, and asks me to move my talus bone. Weirdly, I’m able to do this. She explains that, when we don’t use our feet properly, our muscles have to strain to compensate—not just in our feet but in our whole body. She asks me to lift the front of my foot, which I also do. She then replants my foot and asks me to “trust my bones to hold me up.”

And I have to tell you, in that brief moment, it felt like I had never stood up properly on my own two feet before in my entire life.

After class, I put my chunky Blundstone boots back on, and I tried to replicate that feeling of “standing on my bones.” I couldn’t, mostly because in my shoes, my feet couldn’t even feel the ground. I spent the rest of the day clomping around the city feeling like a guy wearing concrete blocks, waiting to be thrown in the East River.

Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and right now I’m thinking of my feet. I’m test-driving a pair of Galahad Clark’s Vivo Barefoot shoes, which makes it hard to think about anything else.

Barefoot running has been a subject of interest for serious runners for decades, at least since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila ran the Olympic marathon in Rome in 1960 in bare feet—and won. But barefoot running is a difficult discipline that needs to be learned properly, and you certainly shouldn’t be getting advice about it from me, someone who gets winded running for a cab. The real question for New Yorkers is, What about barefoot walking? Is it possible we could be walking better? Well, if my first few minutes in the Vivo Barefoot is any indication, the answer is, Ouch. Yes. Ouch.

Barefoot walking is, in its mechanics, very similar to barefoot running. The idea is to eliminate the hard-heel strike and employ something closer to a mid-strike: landing softly on the heel but rolling immediately through the outside of your foot, then across the ball and pushing off with the toes, with a kind of figure-eight movement though the foot. There’s a more exaggerated version of this style of walking known as “fox-walking,” which is closer to tiptoeing and which has caught on with a small group of naturalists and barefoot hikers. Fox-walking involves landing on the outside of the ball of your foot, then slowly lowering the foot pad to feel for obstructions, then rolling through your toes and moving on. All of which is great, if you’re stalking prey with a handmade crossbow, or you’re an insane millionaire hunting humans as part of the Most Dangerous Game. As for walking in the city, fox-walking has no real practical application, in part because it’s incredibly frustrating to master and in part because you look like a lunatic.

Similarly, you may have heard of a shoe called MBT, or Masai Barefoot Technology, which was developed in the early nineties by a Swiss engineer after studying the barefoot walk of the Masai people. MBTs have gained a cult following because wearing the shoes forces you to work—and presumably tone—your leg muscles. I can attest that this part is true. After wearing MBTs for a short walk, you feel it in the backs of your legs. What you can’t feel—at all—is the ground. In an obvious irony, these “barefoot” shoes look like orthopedic shoes for Frankenstein. You stand on a rocker-shaped sole that’s designed to be soft and unstable. This improves your forward step but makes it nearly impossible to move laterally, i.e., slalom through slow-moving tourists in Soho. And a ride in MBTs on the herky-jerky D train feels like someone’s throwing an ankle-spraining party and you’re the guest of honor.

The Vivos are a totally different experience, since they’re as close to going barefoot in the city as you can get. Barefoot walking should be easy to master, in theory, and Clark assured me that I won’t need any special instruction. The first thing I noticed while wearing the Vivos is that each heel-strike on the pavement was painful. Soon, though, I naturally adjusted my stride to more of a mid-foot strike, so I was rolling flexibly through each step—but then I noticed my feet were getting really tired. My foot muscles weren’t used to working this hard.

After wearing the Barefoots for a while, though, I found I really liked them, precisely because you can feel the ground—you can tell if you’re walking on cobblestones, asphalt, a manhole, or a subway grate. (Striding along that nubby yellow warning strip on the subway platform feels like a foot massage.) Of course, it’s not often that you walk around New York, see something on the ground, and think, I wish I could feel that with my foot. But this kind of walking is a revelation. Not only does it change your step, but it changes your perceptions. As you stroll, your perception stops being so horizontal—i.e., confined more or less to eye level—and starts feeling vertical or, better yet, 360 degrees. You have a new sense of what’s all around you, including underneath.

Still, while I can accept that barefoot-walking is beneficial, it’s hard to shake off 30 years of wrapping my feet in foam. So I put this question—if bare feet are natural, why do we need shoes to “protect” the foot?—to a podiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, who explained, “People who rely on the ‘caveman mentality’ are not taking into consideration that the average life span of a caveman was a heck of a lot shorter than the life span of a person today. The caveman didn’t live past age 30. Epidemiologically speaking, it’s been estimated that, by age 40, about 80 percent of the population has some muscular-skeletal foot or ankle problem. By age 50 to 55, that number can go up to 90 or 95 percent.” Ninety-five percent of us will develop foot or ankle problems? Yeesh. Those are discouraging numbers—but wait. Are we talking about 95 percent of the world population, or of North America? “Those are American figures,” he says. Which makes me think, North Americans have the most advanced shoes in the world, yet 90 percent of us still develop problems? We’ve long assumed this means we need better shoes. Maybe it means we don’t need shoes at all.

Let’s face it: I’m not going to walk barefoot in New York. Neither are you. We’re going to wear shoes. So even if shoes are the enemies of our feet, what have we really learned?

When I met with Amy Matthews, my standing-up-properly guru, I found out that, as a yoga teacher, she goes barefoot when she can, and the rest of the time she wears supportive shoes like Keens or Merrells. “The most important thing is to change up your shoes as much as possible,” she says. “And let your foot do the walking rather than your shoe do the walking.” Even Galahad Clark still makes and sells regular shoes along with Vivos because, as he says, there are a whole host of reasons people buy shoes, most of which have nothing to do with comfort. So weaning people—especially New Yorkers—off shoes is “a bit like trying to wean people off sex. It ain’t going to happen,” he says. “My girlfriend loves to put on heels at night. Then the next day she puts her Vivos back on, to recover.”

What you can do, though, is stop taking walking for granted and start thinking of it like any other physical activity: as something you can learn to do better. Don’t think of your feet as fleshy blocks to be bound up or noisy animals that need to be muzzled. (Oh, my barking dogs!) In one of the Rush Medical College knee-adduction experiments, barefoot walking yielded the lowest knee load, but a flat sneaker, like a pair of Pumas, also offered significantly less load than the overly padded walking shoes.

My new Vivo Barefoots aren’t perfect—they’re more or less useless in rain or snow, and they make me look like I’m off to dance in The Nutcracker. But when I don’t wear them now, I kind of miss them. Not because they’re supposedly making my feet healthier, but because they truly make walking more fun. It’s like driving a stick shift after years at the wheel of an automatic—you suddenly feel in control of an intricate machine, rather than coasting on cruise control. Now I better understand what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote (and I hate to quote another Transcendentalist, but they were serious walking enthusiasts): “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.”

It might be hard to imagine that the press of your foot to the New York pavement could yield anything other than pain or disgust. But if you free your mind, and your feet, you might find yourself strolling through a very different New York, the one Whitman rightly described as a city of “walks and joys.”



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This entry was posted on Sunday, June 30th, 2024 at 6:39 pm and is filed under Articles.

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