Healthy feet – part 2

After a year of my dd experiencing pain in her feet, I finally found out that the issue was fairly simple to resolve – the cause of the pain was slightly fallen arches, and the answer was orthotics.

Just a week after the appointment in which the orthodist told me the worst thing for dd was to go barefoot, we had a well-read guest for a Shabbos meal.  We have a similar holistic approach to health and nutrition and somehow we stumbled onto the topic of foot health.  I told him my discomfort with the idea that going barefoot was harmful, and my sense that orthotics was addressing the symptoms but not doing anything to treat the cause itself.

In response, he told me of a book he read called Born To Run.  In it are discussed an ancient tribe that lives in Mexico called the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara can run extremely long distances without stopping (100 miles at a time) in an area that has a harsh terrain.  Not only that, but people in their nineties can do this, too!  And they do it without the benefit of expensive running shoes that have been engineered after decades of extensive research, but wearing thin sandals. And though 80% of runners experience foot and leg injuries every year, these people with their seemingly primitive shoes rarely experience injuries, even though they log so many more miles than the typical modern runner.

I wanted to read the book myself to learn more about this, but wasn’t able to get it until this Sunday from my library.  Since it took me five weeks to get the book, I did some research online to learn a bit more about foot health and what kind of shoes are actually most beneficial to the feet (but I was glad to finally be able to sit down with the book!).  In my eagerness to learn more about this, I read the 289 page book at one sitting.  (Here‘s a 1 1/2 minute clip of the author in which you can see his new way of running and foot gear; I thought it was worth watching.)  There was a lot of information about body mechanics, but I’ll sum up what I learned.

The foot is a very complex appendage.  It is very sensitive, and is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints, 12 tendons, and 18 muscles.  When you wear shoes, it weakens this supportive network of your foot, similar to when an arm or leg are put in a cast – tendons get stiff, muscles get weaker.  As the muscles of the foot get weaker, the arch collapses and other injuries occur.  So here was the answer to my unspoken question at the orthodist – why does an arch fall?  And how does wearing orthodics help that?

My understanding in short is that the arch falls because the muscles of the foot aren’t being used enough.  Orthodics are like a crutch for the foot – the create artificial support that the weakened foot isn’t creating for itself.  But to really remedy the underlying issue, it seems the foot needs to be exercised more, not less, in order to strengthen those muscles.  (It very much reminds me of eye glasses, another compensatory measure that leads to increasing muscle weakness over time.)

It seems that minimalist shoes are best for allowing your foot to mimic being barefoot, but other than the specialty shoes I’ve looked into (Vibram, Vivo, Nike Free), I’m unclear about if inexpensive canvas shoes with minimal support are better than good quality shoes in terms of allowing the foot to exercise more (if so, dd has a few pairs of those).  Dd developed the problem she had after a year of wearing Crocs all the time, and the orthodist told us that shoes like that are what keep her in business!  I think a shoe like Crocs might be problematic because there’s so much cushioning on the sole but no support all around, whereas a thinner sole would allow the foot to better protect itself from harmful walking patterns.  When it comes to running shoes, a study showed that ironically, the more expensive the running shoes, the higher the injury rate for runners was.  Those wearing less expensive shoes were actually better off than those with shoes with all of the technology behind it. When the foot is less cushioned, you’re more aware of how you use your feet and adapt accordingly.

I’m strongly leaning toward Vibram Five Fingers, even though they look so darn funky.  But I’m sure my dd wouldn’t wear them in public, and around the house I told her she might as well go barefoot!  My kids are like me – they’re willing to do alternative stuff, but want to look ‘normal’ in the process.  😆  The Vivo Terra Plana shoes look normal, but they are so extremely expensive – over $100 for a pair of flats – and I don’t know how long they last.

I find the idea of spending huge amounts of money to mimic not wearing shoes to be kind of contradictory.  Obviously walking barefoot is free, but since one still needs to wear shoes when out and about, I’m still wondering if there are inexpensive options to the specialty shoes.

I’m looking for a good buy on Vibrams and when I find them plan to get a pair for myself (my arches fell after six pregnancies).  I think if I get dd the Vibrams and can get her to wear them, once her feet feel better it will be easier for her to consider wearing them more frequently, but I’m not willing to pay so much money and have them sit in the box, so it will depend on finding a good deal.  For now I’ve suggested to dd that she go barefoot or in socks as much as she can when at home, and am  still leaning toward having her buy several pairs of Teva shoes when she gets to Israel.    I haven’t found anything yet that says Birkenstock-type shoes (like Teva) are problematic, but I’m not able to independently come to an educated conclusion about that – I don’t know how the body mechanics are affected by cork bottom shoes.  As of now I think it’s a decent option – certainly preferable to a lifetime of orthotics.  I’m far from an expert, but learning so much about how the feet ‘work’ has been very interesting and educational.  If anyone knows of any good options for minimalist shoes, please share!


17 thoughts on “Healthy feet – part 2

  1. Hi Avivah,
    One of the best exercises that I know about was suggested by our pediatrician for my 2 yo. Both my kids have fallen arches, although they are not as pronounced as mine. Being barefoot was actually the best option suggested, but he also suggested exercising the arch itself–if you can imagine this, squatting on your toes. Also, walking barefoot while bending the toes in the same way. I think the rationale is that the arch basically gets individual strenth-training through the weight bearing exercise. That being said, you still have to keep an eye on the ball of the foot, because it bears even more pressure than the arch. Moderation and stretching are the key. As far as Crocs go, I have heard that they are bad for foot structure, especially for very young children because they don’t allow the foot to develop properly.

    1. Wow, what great comments, and so fast, too!

      Talya, those tips are very helpful. I told my dd about as soon as I read your comment, and I’m going to try the exercises as well.

      Shoshana – there is an REI locally, and after Tisha B’Av I’m planning to head over there and try them on. Vibrams can be hard to size; they fit differently than regular shoes. The more I talk to dd about these, the more interested she is in them. Thanks also for the timely Tisha B’Av link!

      Nicole – I’ll take a look at the forum you suggested when I have a chance – thanks for the suggestion. What kind of shoes do you wear when you run?

  2. I don’t have minimalist shoe advice (although those shoes look so helpful) but I have very little of an arch and I have been wearing Naot for about 3+ years. Mine were purchased in Israel. Kids need me, I will try (bli neder) to post more later.

  3. Aviva, may I suggest you visit the forums at Runner’s World magazine’s website ( and go to the one about shoes and barefoot running. There are many alternative ‘minimalist’ shoes out there and many of us runners use them as a good alternative to totally barefoot or totally supported.

    For myself (I am a long distance runner) I am unable to go barefoot for long runs for other biomechanical reasons. Although Born to Run discussed the research, it wasn’t a comprehensive discussion, and there can be intervening factors. However, there are other alternatives to the Vibrams that don’t look quite so quirky that may really work well for your daughter.

    Good luck!

  4. Oh, and Vibrams are frequently carried at dedicated running shops (the ones where they actually know how to fit a person, and spend time with you to determine the correct fit). You may be able to find the model you want to try it on. They tend to be a bit more expensive at those stores (although the service is superior) but you can also order online or elsewhere if you find the right fit.

  5. Not cheaper than what you already found, but I wear some shoes by El Naturalista, (only certain ones are like this) that have soles which are completely flexible, just like the specialty children’s shoes that mimic barefoot walking. I found my arch got much stronger after wearing them.

    The other thing I wanted to point out is that a shoe like a ballet flat (Vivo seems to have one) might have a thin flexible sole, but every shoe of that style I’ve ever worn, flexible or not, does not hold onto the foot enough to allow for a natural feeling step. Similar to the way flip flops, and crocs, and clogs, change the way I step, ballet flats require me to clench my foot to keep them on as well, which messes with the rolling of my foot.

  6. My friend Damien Tougas has written reviews of several minimalist shoes at his blog Adventure in Progress. I just bought some shoes for my soon-to-be toddler from Softstar Shoes online. Some of them look “normal.” Teva also makes some water shoes (Proton) that are pretty minimal but offer great protection. Vibrams do look wierd and if she won’t wear them out, I wouldn’t bother :-)

  7. check out and they’re becoming quite popular in southern cali for all those surfers. surfers like the barely there feel for everything, so maybe there’s something to the shoes they wear also. i wanted to buy sanuk shoes but they didn’t have my size. don’t know much about them but they look like simple unsupportive shoes and if she cares about style these are quite in style, at least here. i’ve always been a birkenstock/ earth balance shoe person. i could never do any other shoe. my feet have always been sensitive and i choose comfort over beauty. i do run in nike, but manage to get the cheapest pair (my last pair was $40). i have a bum knee so i do use the nike for support but i hope to gain enough strength in my legs that i’m able to run in the simple no support shoes you were mentioning. anyway, great info, i’ve always felt it’s important to take care of your feet. it makes me nervous the way women wear these crazy high heeled shoes….

  8. I have Toms. They were ok, but they fit pretty tight, and part of the barefoot thing is to have room to spread your foot and splay your toes. So, I’d suggest sizing up. Also, they are much more snug after I washed them (was I supposed to put them in the dryer??? woops).

  9. Pingback: Foot Problems 101
  10. Hi Aviva, my husband has also done shoe research (and wears funny looking sockwa shoes). He says a big problem is thick heels which encourage the feet to land heel first instead of toe first as it would barefoot. crocs have thick heels.

    He pointed out this chinese martial arts shoe which is cheap, minimalist, and look normal

    Also, New Balance makes a minimal running shoe that looks normal, called MT100, but it is more expensive.

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