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You Walk Wrong

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.