Walking over uneven ground may put a stop to the hard-earned wisdom of age. Luckily, there is a way to reduce the risks of injuries, if we can make sure the bottoms of our feet have as much contact as possible with the surface of the earth.
Contributor: K. Drexler, entering into the wisdom of age with a smile
Although we gain a lot of hard-earned wisdom as we age, and we finally may feel like we are well-grounded and balanced, walking over uneven ground may put a stop to that feeling.
Besides being disconcerting, losing balance later in life can be a major safety concern because the risk of falling and suffering significant injuries becomes so much greater. Luckily, there is a way to reduce these risks if we can make sure the bottoms of our feet have as much contact as possible with the surface of the earth. Research on older adults by Dr. Hylton Menz, a professor of biomechanics at La Trobe University in Australia, shows that wearing ill-suited shoes can lead to foot deformities and increased risks of weakness and falls.
When our heels are elevated by the cushioning found in most walking shoes, it may distort our senses and confuse our brains. In a cushioned shoe, the feet receive less accurate sensory information. When our feet cannot fully sense the ground beneath us, we lose our ability to respond reflexively. Our feet also become less sensitive as we age. In order to compensate for this, then, and maintain balance, we have to adapt and provide our brains with the information they need. The best way to do this is to make sure our feet are firmly planted on the ground and our toes spread out as much as possible.
Surprisingly, wearing cushioned shoes has also been shown to cause harder impacts to the rest of the body than wearing no shoes at all. When Dr. Daniel E. Lieberman from Harvard University first discovered this years ago, it was groundbreaking. “The energy that gets shot up your leg is about three times bigger in a cushioned shoe than if you’re barefoot,” he said, adding that “we have no idea what that means” for joint health. The rate of arthritis of the knee has doubled since World War II, though, and one theory is that the increase is due, in part, to changes in shoe design which started incorporating cushioned soles at that time.
While jaunting along in cushy, padded shoes can feel pretty easy and comfortable to the feet, it can actually be more uncomfortable, long-term, for the body. Other benefits of ditching the padded shoes can include:
- More control of your feet on the ground
- Improvements in body awareness
- Better mechanics of the hips, knees, and core
- Improvements in range of motion in your feet, knees, and ankle joints
- Improvements in strength and stability within muscles and ligaments
- Relief from bunions, hammertoes, or other foot deformities
- Stronger leg muscles
- Lower back support
- Enhanced posture
A fragile foot structure, caused by cushioned shoes, is common, but it doesn’t have to be. Dr. Stephen Robbins and Dr. Adel Hanna, from Concordia University in Quebec, Canada, have found that feet are able to improve quickly, regardless of age, by wearing shoes without cushion. (SOM Footwear has a great selection here.)
A flatter shoe that feels more like being barefoot will automatically strengthen the foot/ankle complex and fix some bio-mechanical problems, helping elderly people stay injury-free. (Of course, if you’re suffering from foot or joint problems, talk through your options with your doctor.) Feet become stronger quickly. However, if you aren’t wearing flat shoes now, it’s not wise to jump into some and walk for many miles. Your muscles and joints have to adapt and you need to develop the appropriate strength in the feet before you try too much too quickly.
Here are a few ideas that can help:
- Ease into it slowly. Start with short sessions of fifteen or twenty minutes wearing flat shoes so your feet and ankles adapt. Increase the distance and time gradually.
- Ease up if you feel any new pain or discomfort at all.
- Practice on easy surfaces. Try walking first on surfaces that are safer, such as turf, tracks, grass, or flat trails.
Wearing the right shoes is good for the sole and the body. We should make choices that can help us feel grounded and balanced, no matter how uneven the path ahead may be. And that’s how we age successfully.
Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W. et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463, 531–535 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08723
Menz HB, Morris ME. Footwear characteristics and foot problems in older people. Gerontology. 2005 Sep-Oct;51(5):346-51. doi: 10.1159/000086373. PMID: 16110238.
Robbins SE, Hanna AM. Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1987 Apr;19(2):148-56. PMID: 2883551.