The following is an excerpt from Chapter 22 of The Mass Psychology of Fittism (Undocumented Worker Press: ’15)
To understand how humans might have looked, felt, moved and behaved before we entered the modern to postmodern era—that is, when we were fitter in the evolutionary sense—it is instructive to turn once again to Mr. Darwin and both the environments in which our human genome developed and those in which humans continue to flourish.
It turns out that the human body has remarkable capacity to adapt to virtually any terrain on Earth. We may have evolved on the African savannah, but we thrived virtually everywhere on Earth. And this means that the most important environmental constant in human existence could be variation and its propensity for generating neurological complexity. Today, in places where humans encounter daily variation underfoot, we see tell-tale signs of our evolutionary heritage: strong feet, legs and backs. Unfortunately for most modern city dwellers, however, the possibility for becoming strong and healthy has been largely surrendered after years of shielding ourselves from Mother Earth and her varied ways of appealing to our senses.
Due to our dominant culture’s reductionistic (mis)understanding of fitness, few are aware of the fact that the human body generally gains in strength, coordination and agility when presented with more, rather than less variation. Compared to flat surfaces, for example, uneven ones ask for more range of learned motion, and greater degrees of learned freedom in the joints of the foot, thereby making greater demands on the muscles and tendons controlling those joints. If we look at the foot not simply as a passive foundation on which the body stands, but instead, as one facet of a complex system with which it coordinates each and every one of its movements, we can assume that the more varied, complex, and powerful the movement of the foot, the more varied, complex and powerful the movement of the entire body. From this perspective, the ground (usually in combination with the shoes we are wearing) constrains the movement of the foot, which in turn constrains the movement of the ankle and knee, which in turn constrains the hip joint, and so on upward. Of course, constraining forces are not unidirectional; everything above makes demands on everything below, everything in front makes demands on everything in back, everything on the right side of the body makes demands on everything on the left, and so on. In short, what benefits one part of the system benefits the whole and vice versa. Our feet being our only contact with the ground when we are balancing on top of them, are obviously no exception to this important principle.
Skechers has agreed to pay $40 million to consumers who purchased its rocker- bottom shoes under the mistaken belief that the shoes would help give them Kim Kardashian’s booty or Joe Montana’s stamina.
–RENE LYNCH, “Skechers Lawsuit: How to Get Your Piece of the $40-Million Payout,” Los Angeles Times410
Given the major technological advances in shoe engineering and fitness equipment over the last forty years you might expect us modern folks to have the healthiest feet and strongest legs in human history. You might wonder how humans ever survived without modern footwear. You might not believe that Michael Jordan dominated the NBA in his measly Air Jordan® 12s. You might be surprised to discover that Bill Russell led his team to eleven NBA championships in stone- age canvas sneakers—or more astonishing, that soccer legend, Pelé? could have kicked a ball when as a child he didn’t even have money buy shoes.
Perhaps even more important to our sense-abilities than the terrain on which we stand is the type of barrier we place between it and our feet. Unfortunately, the unyielding blocks of polyurethane, rubber, or leather attached to the bottoms of most dress and work shoes inhibit what could otherwise become a fuller range of motion not only in our feet, but in our ankles, knees, hips and spine. This means that stiff outsoles will tend to leave us not only with senile metatarsals but cranky knees, rusty hip joints and a tender back. In addition, the decades-old trend toward providing more support and shock absorption in virtually all types of shoes—from dress to casual to athletic—has also contributed heavily to the atrophy we see in most people’s feet and legs.
Ironically, in the ongoing arms race to maximize support and shock absorption for our feet, shoe manufacturers are contributing more to their deterioration than to any purported gains in health. Perhaps it’s because in their efforts to provide more comfort for our feet—and in the case of athletics, to enhance performance and reduce injuries—shoe manufacturers have inadvertently deemed both the human foot—an intricate design housing 26 bones methodically cut, smoothed, sanded and fitted by over a million years of evolution—and the nervous system—the grey matter responsible controlling those 26 bones (via an intricate network of more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments wrapped in sheaths of fascial tissue)—faulty and in need of improvement. The result is that contrary to what we might have expected, feet in modern culture have become quite the opposite of the pliant, flexible and articulating plantar appendages we see in young children, judo adepts and those few still living in traditional cultures.
If modern footwear, along with the ubiquitous slabs of concrete and asphalt on which we stand, walk and run, have left our feet and legs far weaker and less mobile than those of both our hunting-gathering and farming ancestors, weaker feet and legs have, in turn, contributed heavily to faulty posture, gait and stride. It seems that square, flat and heavily supported have become not only the hallmarks of modern urban design and footwear, but harbingers for modern human deterioration. We in our so-called “advanced” society consequently move with far less comfort, power, agility and fluid motion than would be otherwise expected.411
There is always, of cousre, violence to the whole system if you think about the parts separately…
Feet in postmodern culture seem only to capture our attention for the suffering they cause us on the inside, or the fashion statement they make on the outside. On the other hand, observing people living in more “primitive” cultures—ones, for example, who have not experienced the benefits of either paved streets and sidewalks or modern shoe technology—we discover a surprising truth: Evolution (or God, depending on your spiritual bent) doesn’t need our help. Nike® may possess the latest technology, Adidas® may have acquired the most recent patents, and Masai Barefoot Technology® (or MBT®) may be named after a Neolithic tribe whose members can walk and run further and faster than all but our best athletes, yet you won’t find any indigenous peoples spending a cent on the latest foot fetish, much less $200 for amalgamated polyurethane soles bearing their name. Perhaps the Masai know what we have long ago forgotten: Humans not only survived, but thrived for eons without the help of multinational shoe companies.
Furthermore, where evolution makes no mistakes, Newtonian mechanics is equally democratic, exempting no one, regardless of whether or not she has a multimillion-dollar contract with a shoe company. And this means that no matter how sporty professional athletes looks in their neon treads, how sexy movie stars appear in their designer pumps, or how many millions each receive in return for their Faustian bargain with multinationals, their shoes are unlikely to improve either their athletic performance, or their gait. More likely, in fact, they will continue to restrict degrees of freedom—degrees to which they must be able to respond if they want a healthy pair of feet and a supple spine, along with agile, fluid and powerful motion.
3 Problems With Conventional Modern Footwear414
The three major issues concerning movement in general and biomechanics in particular are: 1) joint stability, 2) balance and, 3) propulsive power. In terms of shoe design, the three major factors affecting each of the above are: 1) the height of the heel relative to the forefoot, 2) the ability to absorb shock when the foot strikes the ground, and 3) the amount of stimuli the insole imparts to the sole of the foot.
Largely unacknowledged in the overlapping worlds of sports medicine, exercise science, athletics and podiatry, the raised heel, found not only in both work and dress shoes, but in the vast majority of athletic footwear, destabilizes the ankles and knees while in many cases, reducing the amount of rotational force a person can generate with their legs and pelvis.415 Put in plain words, the raised heel makes it more likely for me to sprain either ankle and/or tear ligaments in either knee while playing sports, dancing, doing martial arts or simply walking on uneven terrain. Furthermore, it can reduce the amount of force I am able to generate when I am in an upright position—whether I happen to be opening a door, kicking a soccer ball or trying to hit a home run in baseball. I would even go so far as to hypothesize that the fifty-year trend toward raising the heel in fashion, fitness and sports (including professional basketball, baseball, tennis, American football and track) has inadvertently created more business for orthopedic surgeons while imparting little orthopedic value for the wearers.
In regard to power, we might wonder how much more of it we could gain by bringing our heels down to earth (or at least closer to it) in a very literal sense—and how doing so could simultaneously improve our balance and stability.416 We might think that people in this day and age have more power—especially judging by the performance of professional athletes. For example, if we look at the upsurge in the number of home runs Major League Baseball players have been hitting, the increased power in the ground strokes of professional tennis players, the faster times in everything from the 100 meter dash to the marathon, the improved athleticism and physicality we see among NBA players or the number of concussions NFL football players have been sustaining in the last three decades, we might conclude that people—at least high level professionals—have more power today than they did a generation ago. Yet, should we attribute the power to shoe technology, or could they be related to advances in other fields such as pharmacology (to improve muscle growth and reduce recovery time), materials science (resulting for example, in the obsolescence of wood tennis rackets and cinder tracks), and brain imaging (giving us the ability to more effectively diagnose brain injury)? In addition, could better performance in all sports be related to an increase in both the number of participants as well as the amount of financial backing given to the participants?417
If the calcaneus or “heel bone” is the largest bone in my foot, it makes sense that its inherent design is to bear the greatest amount of weight (among the bones touching the ground) while I am standing and to contribute to translating the greatest amount of force while I perform particular movements (please see Chapter 14, “Evolution (or God) Doesn’t Make Mistakes” for more detail on this subject). Yet with the heel elevated as it is in most shoes, it is often restricted from both bearing as much weight and translating as much force as it normally could. Furthermore, elevating the heel doesn’t occur in Cartesian isolation. Rather, it changes the angle of articulation of all the joints in my body—all the way from my toes to the base of my skull. Most obviously, it changes the way I use my forefoot and ankle—specifically, keeping the joints in my forefoot (where the metatarsals meet the phalanges) chronically dorsiflexed, while at the same time keeping the joints in my ankle chronically plantarflexed. Combined with the tendency for elevated heels to tilt my center of mass forward, this shift in my ankles means that I will likely sit, stand and move with knees pitched forward, thereby destabilizing them for any motion I make, whether it’s to throw a ball, open a door or simply bend down in order to pick something off the floor.
To generate both stability and power in motions that rely primarily on rotation in the pelvis (such as throwing a football, hitting a baseball or throwing the right/left cross in boxing), however, the knee of the front foot will normally travel backward relative to the calcaneus. Doing so allows the feet and legs to work in tandem with the spine and arms, which in turn generates more rotational force in the pelvis. Sinking more rather than less weight and thereby translating more rather than less force through the calcaneus is, in other words, part and parcel of generating more rotational force for many types of movements, from the everyday to those of an athletic, dance-oriented or martial nature.
No shortcuts exist; the answer lies in the particular concatenation of details—and these must be elucidated and integrated descriptively.
-STEPHEN JAY GOULD418
If a raised heel destabilizes my knee, what happens when I lower my heel to the extent that it rests below the level of my forefoot? The sunken or negative heel designed for MBT®s and its less expensive copycat, Sketchers® Shape Ups is supposed to awaken certain muscles in my feet, legs and “core” which will, in turn improve my figure, gait and posture—at least theoretically.
What the theory doesn’t account for, however, is the highly complex “concatenation of details” that affect the way we use our 630 muscles and how this usage affects our morphology. According to Cartesian cause and effect, the correct input leads to desired output. In the case of shoe marketing, if I add the correct input—in this case, MBTs or Shape-ups—I will get a specific output: a waking up of certain muscles in my body. Furthermore, the specific output leads to the specific desired result: better figure and improved posture.
Yet, if we consider that every movement we make involves the control of 630 muscles to move 206 bones vis-a-vis 230 joints (each joint exhibiting varying degrees of freedom), the possibilities for variation are rather enormous. If we further consider that each muscle contains millions, perhaps billions, of muscle fibers and that each muscle fiber communicates with every other fiber via a nervous system and brain containing more possible states than exist particles in the known universe, we can begin to see that every single movement we make involves an astonishingly high level of complexity.
The theory underlying MBTs and Sketchers Shape Ups, however, is based on the notion that we can treat the human body like a simple machine: by pushing a button, it will respond the way we want it to.
Increasing Awareness Results in a Different Shape
From a neuromuscular standpoint, “shaping” my body and improving my gait is more a function of how much sensorimotor awareness I have as I move my body than one of how well the polyurethane slab attached to the bottom of my feet has been marketed. This is because how I move my body (and therefore what sort of shape or configuration my body makes as I move it), depends crucially on how sensitive I am to the contraction of each and every muscle fiber in it. Gait, posture and morphology, in other words, are inextricably linked to self-awareness. If I want to get in shape, therefore, it will benefit me more to discover how it is I am doing what I am doing, than to simply “just do it,” (to borrow a phrase from another multinational shoe company).
Unfortunately, problems with MBTs and Sketchers Shape Ups do not end with specious advertising. The negative heel in combination with the high midsole comes not only at the financial expense of purchasing them, but a biomechanical one of destabilizing the knee—which in turn may increase your financial expense even more if you end up with an injury. Unlike the raised heel, the negative heel is made possible by having a thicker than normal mid-sole. Not only does this increase the risk of torsion and shearing in the knee, but hyperextension as well. Where the elevated heel destabilizes the knee by pushing it forward relative to the calcaneus, the negative heel tends to destabilize it by pushing it too far back. Coupled with the one to one-and-a-half inch elevation in the midsole and you have shoes that rival designer pumps for instability (and without the benefit of making you look sexy).
Of course, I need not possess the slightest knowledge of biomechanics, evolution, the anatomical structure of the human foot or even the workings of my own foot in order to exercise simple logic (even if marketing executives, advertising agencies and public relations officers are counting on me not to). If MBTs are named after a group of people who for eons have worn little to nothing on their feet—certainly nothing resembling MBTs—shouldn’t we at least be a little skeptical? It seems that if we wanted to experience the kind of power and grace that we see in the Masai or other people who walk and run swiftly, we would want to create conditions that more accurately simulate theirs, i.e. minimizing support and padding as opposed to attaching an expensive polyurethane boat to the soles of our feet.
Using Constraints Rather Than Getting Used By Them
Despite what I’ve written in the previous pages, I do believe there can be some limited benefit to experimenting with MBTs, Sketchers Shape Ups, or any type of footwear for that matter. While anything I place on my feet has the potential to mute at least some of my sense-abilities and thereby diminish particular response-abilities, carefully observing how one pair of shoes affects my movement in comparison to another pair—or even no pairs—can sometimes be useful for awakening parts of my body and thereby increasing my sensorimotor control. This is because anything I put on my body or physically move through space—whether or not it has been patented, trademarked or marketed by advertising specialists—necessarily serves as a constraint to the way I move. Anything I put on my body or physically move through space therefore affects the way I move my entire body by not only providing certain restrictions to, but making certain affordances for the way I move. The question is what exactly are the consequent restrictions on my movement? What are the new affordances? What new perspectives can I gain from each? Am I willing to slow down, pay attention and explore?
The less attention I pay to my own sense-ability and response-ability, and therefore, the less aware I am of how any particular constraint affects my sensorimotor control, the more susceptible I am to being used by the constraint. The more exploratory and creative I am in negotiating the constraint, the more it becomes a useful tool. Finally, the more I see each constraint as a learning tool to be used in some, but not all cases, and therefore to be used sometimes rather than all the time, the more I am likely to benefit and deeper the benefit is likely to be.
Earlier studies had shown that athletes wearing shoes that were more heavily cushioned were more likely to be hurt in games requiring agility.
-JOHN O’NEIL, “Protection: Textured Insoles Win High Scores,” The New York Times419
If you’ve ever seen what an arm or leg looks like after it’s been in a cast for several weeks, you have a sense of how the body adapts to restriction. General speaking, when joints are restricted from moving, they will over time, become less flexible, while the muscles around them will atrophy, and the nervous system’s control over their articulation will decrease. Recall from Part 1 that habitual reliance on external constraints reduces sensorimotor control; the more restrictive the constraint, the more control I may end up losing.
If we consider that anything designed to cradle, support and otherwise cushion my feet will, to one degree or another, restrict my movement and muffle sensory input from the ground, we can begin to understand why shoes can have a similar, albeit milder, effect to wearing a cast. Wearing certain kinds of shoes, in other words, can over time, lead to atrophy in the muscles, tendons and ligaments that both articulate the joints in my feet, as well as hold them together. In addition, the subsequent muting of sensory stimuli to the soles of my feet can reduce my ability to respond not only to changing pressures resulting from even the tiniest movement in any part of my body, but to changing terrain over which I am standing, walking or running.
Of course, coordinating the joints in one part of my skeleton does not occur in isolation from the rest of it. As I mentioned earlier, when I coordinate the joints in my feet, I am not only coordinating them with each other, but in conjunction with the joints in my knees, hips and spine. This means decreasing control over my feet simultaneously decreases my control over the entire rest of my body, resulting in a loss not only in flexibility, but in balance, stability and power.
Given the above, it is easy to see why in modern culture, the free and flexible foot of the young child stands a good chance of becoming a stiff and clumsy paddle by middle age and an immovable and imprisoned stump by old age. And it is also clear why people far removed from advances in modern footwear—such as farmers from remote villages in Kenya, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Vietnam— not only exude the kind of poise, strength and fluidity that we only see in our best athletes, but walk on feet and legs that have maintained their childlike resilience and suppleness. That women in Nairobi can carry twenty percent of their body weight on top of their head, walk for miles never require the services of a chiropractor, physical therapist, podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon is testimony to a design more intelligent than modern medicine seems to have accounted for. That women (and sometimes men) have been performing such tasks since time immemorial serves as powerful testimony to the probability that the human body doesn’t only survive, but may actually function far better minus the services of extra cushioning and support.
Where people living without many of our modern advances can be identified up close by their well articulated, wide and muscular feet, as well as afar by their smooth, erect and graceful gait, those of us in modern culture are more likely to be recognized by both the atrophy in our lower extremities, the stylish and sometimes colorful treads we don underfoot, and the ungainly, behemoth-like “clomp, clomp, clomp,” signaling our arrival. The fluid and graceful movement seen in our distant cousins—the ones, that is, who don’t shop at Macy’s, Foot Locker or Saks Fifth Avenue—stands in stark contrast to the stiff, unyielding and machine-like movement we, the inhabitants of modern suburbs and cities, exhibit.
410. Rene Lynch, “Skechers Lawsuit: How to Get Your Piece of the $40-Million Payout,” Los Angeles Times, May 17.
411. It should be noted here that “we” includes both fitness buffs and the paragons of health and beauty—i.e., the those who appear on the on billboards and magazine covers. When it comes to sensorimotor learning, Newtonian mechanics and the “natural selectivity” of the nervous system make no exceptions, which means that gravity in conjunction with the regular use of most modern footwear will exact the same toll on my neuromuscular system regardless whether or not I have six-pack abs, climb many steps on the Stairmaster or drink a patented protein shake every morning.
412. Gregory Bateson, Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Cornelia & Michael Bessie Books, 1991, p. 265.
413. Not only do members of indigenous tribes generally “walk and run further and faster than all but our best athletes,” at least one in fact, also runs faster than all of our best athletes. Masai warrior, David Rudisha holds the world record for the 800 meters in track & field, which he set while winning the gold medal in the London Olympics in 2012 and simultaneously becoming the first and only human to break the 1:41 barrier.
414. By “conventional” I am excluding anything that belongs in the “barefoot” category of footwear or otherwise exhibits a soft and pliable sole with minimal support and cushioning.
415. There is a growing list of exceptions who are beginning to acknowledge the negative effects of modern footwear on the human body. For example, Daniel Lieberman, who is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, writes at length about the effect of modern shoes on biomechanics.
416. Allowing the heel to come closer to earth does not necessarily mean I should land on my heels when I run. Rather, it means that it would be better if my shoe not only placed my heel at the same height of my forefoot, but also provided less of a barrier between the entire foot and the ground.
417. How many women, for example, competed in professional sports a generation ago? How many Kenyans, Ethiopians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Koreans, Mexicans, Chinese and Russians participated in the 1936 Olympics? As GDP rises in certain parts of the world, nationalistic fervor fuels larger athletic budgets, corporate sponsorship dangles more carrots in the face of the public, and women gain a larger voice in politics, not only are more people are participating in competitive sports than ever before, but more are doing so in a manner involving greater discipline and increased professional advice. Where many amateur athletes a mere generation ago were truly amateur (not including those who were training in communist China, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations), many who participate in the Olympics these days are actually professionals who receive financial backing from small businesses, the Federal government, or multinational corporations. Due to public and/or private sponsorship, many Olympics prospects in this day and age no longer need to work normal jobs in order to survive. Indeed, some of the world’s highest paid athletes appear in what was once thought to be a competition between amateur athletes.
418. Stephen Jay Gould, The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History, New York: Harmony Books, 2000, p. 175.
419. “A tough surface inside the shoes of athletes can help protect their feet, knees and ankles, according to a new study that involved 17 members of the Australian woman’s soccer team. The study, published last week in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that the women had a poorer sense of changes in the positions of their feet when they wore their soccer shoes than when they were barefoot, but that adding a textured insole to their shoes brought their scores back up to the barefoot level.” -John O’Neil, “Protection: Textured Insoles Win High Scores,” The New York Times, April 8, 2003.