Foot Loose and Fancy Free

Donald NorfolkWhat can’t be seen is easily forgotten. People will spend thousands of pounds on cosmetics and botox injections to improve the appearance of their face, but totally ignore the health and comfort of their feet. Yet these unseen ‘pedal extremities’ are a major source of health problems. Surveys suggest that about 80% of elderly people in Britain today stand in need of treatment for their feet, of the sort which is readily available from chiropodists, osteopaths and reflexologists. In an ideal world, health care should start from the ground up. This was appreciated by Elizabeth the Great, who employed a group of six women to massage the soles of her feet in relays, especially at night when she couldn’t sleep.

Most of our troubles started when we took to wearing shoes, some of which are less comfortable than the boxes they come in. Before that the feet were on open display, and were often made objects of worship and veneration. Christ washed his disciples’ feet, a practice known as ‘caritas’ which some monks still follow. Among Hindus it was once customary to brush the dust from the feet of friends who called to visit, and for followers to kiss the feet of the gurus they esteemed. Thousands, for instance, are said to have stood in line to kiss Gandhi’s feet. Now that the Asian middle classes have discarded their sandals and taken to encasing their feet in Western style shoes these customs are falling from favour. The Chinese date the origin of shoes to the fourth century BC, when a nobleman called Su Pin lost his toes and took to encasing his feet in leather to hide his deformity. That led to him being accepted as the inventor of shoes and the god of cobblers. This is clearly a myth, because archaeological studies of skeletal feet suggest that shoes have been worn for at least 40,000 years. This single development has had a critical effect on the way we use our feet.

Our feet are miracles of human engineering, which when we walk are capable of bearing the weight of a 20 stone man on a shifting base which at times is no bigger than an identity disc. This feat is achieved by a complex arrangement of joints, each foot containing 26 bones, 33 joints and 19 major muscles. The system works impeccably providing the joints are flexible and the muscles strong. But this degree of ergonomic efficiency is hard to maintain when the feet are constantly bound in leather straight jackets. Indian children who go barefoot for the first six years of their lives rarely develop foot problems, whereas these are major plagues in the Western world. To reduce the risk of suffering flat feet, bunions, calluses and hammer toes, everyone should try to spend some time every day walking about as nature intended with bare feet. This will increase the strength and flexibility of the feet, enhance balance and lessen the risk of falls.

Towards the end of his life Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, said that he attributed his good health to his fondness for walking barefoot. This was a habit he’d learned as a child when he used to walk barefoot to his Ayrshire school with his shoes and socks slung around his neck. This was not because his family was poor, but because his mother thought it would make her children hardy. Centuries earlier, the wealthy Romans had invented lawns to create paths along which they could walk barefoot. Pliny the Elder had an extensive garden attached to his villa at Ostia, a sea side resort on the outskirts of Rome. This had grass avenues shaded by vines and lined with rosemary and box hedges where he would wander barefoot to cogitate and relax. The Japanese took this a step further when they created tea gardens with stepping stone pathways and courtyards paved with pebbles. Following this route in bare feet was found to have a relaxing effect and help prepare visitors spiritually for the ritualised tea ceremony. Many Westerners have derived benefit from adopting the practice of barefoot walking. In Britain there is a Society for Barefoot Living, catering for people who relish the freedom of walking unshod indoors, in the garden, and even on country rambles. One of its members, a retired university lecturer from Hertfordshire, explains: “I go on barefoot country walks at least once a week all through the year and get a great sense of freedom and relaxation.”

In recent years researchers in the West have tested this practice to see if it has any observable, physiological effect. Early in 2007 a team of researchers at the Oregon Research Institute constructed a mat designed to replicate the effect of walking on cobblestones. In tests, funded by the National Institute of Aging, a group of 50 people over the age of 60 were encouraged to walk on these mats in stocking feet for less than an hour three times a week. After four months the group showed a marked improvement in balance and even a significant reduction in blood pressure. This arose because the extra use of the foot and leg muscles helped prevent the pooling of venous blood in the legs and speed its return to the heart. The mats are now selling like freshly baked doughnuts, and the researchers hope that the exercise they provide will offer a ‘useful non-pharmaceutical approach for preventing or controlling hypertension of older adults.’ But why go to the expense and bother of using a mat, when you can get the exercise for free? Make a habit of kicking off your shoes whenever you can at home, and better still when you’re walking around the garden, particularly when the lawn is covered with early morning dew. The exercise will preserve the health of your feet, improve your circulation and prove deliciously relaxing. Brian Wilson, composed most of the hit tunes for the Beach Boys, and found that inspiration came most easily when he sat at his grand piano and twiddled his bare feet in a 14ft square box filled with two tons of sand. (He had to abandon the practice when the sand started clogging the foot pedals and his dogs started using the sand tray as a dirt box.)

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