It is extremely common nowadays to see people with highly cushioned footwear, whether running shoes with thick protective soles, specialized walking shoes, or orthopedic shoes. Though more expensive, these shoes are generally considered more comfortable, able to provide better protection for the feet, and to make better balance, posture, and stability easier to achieve. Consequently, these shoes are considered especially important for elderly people.
However a team of researchers from Harvard University, along with colleagues from a number of other universities, hypothesized that thick-soled shoes might actually be worse for one’s balance and stability.
Their reasoning was relatively straightforward: until the modern era it was relatively common for people to walk barefoot or in relatively thin-soled shoes. As a consequence, these individuals built up a strong, thick calluses. Calluses protect feet by preventing injury caused by rough or uneven ground, similar to the way well-padded shoes protect feet.
However, other consequences of wearing thick-soled shoes had not been studied previously.
The research team’s conclusions were published in the prestigious journal Nature. In summing up the team’s research goals, lead researcher Dr. Daniel Lieberman stated, “As habitually barefoot individuals are thought to develop thick calluses, and individuals with minimal calluses often find barefoot walking on rough surfaces to be uncomfortable, it is commonly assumed that the calluses, similar to thick shoe soles, trade offered protection with the ability to perceive tactile stimuli. […] However, if callused skin is stiff, it should transmit mechanical stimuli to the [specialized sensory receptors] in the deeper [skin layers] with little dampening [of sensation].”
If this hypothesis were true, then the ability to transmit accurate stimuli from callused feet would help us to make automatic corrections to the way we walk, based on evidence about the terrain we are navigating, thus allowing us to balance and stabilize ourselves more efficiently.
After studying people from various countries who wore a wide variety of footwear, the researchers’ hypothesis was confirmed. People who walked barefoot, in moccasins, or in shoes with thin soles had far thicker and harder calluses than people who wore thick-soled, well-padded shoes. The researchers were able to confirm that the greater thickness of the calluses did not detract at all from the nerve sensitivity to the plantar nerves.
On the other hand, people who wore shoes that were well-cushioned had reduced plantar nerve sensitivity. As a consequence of this reduced sensitivity — and despite the fact that their feet were well protected by their cushioned shoes — these individuals experienced greater impact on the joints of their feet, ankles, knees, and back, since there was no automatic adjustment made by the body to suit the terrain the person was traversing.
The authors questioned whether wearing special protective shoes, for example orthotics, was actually beneficial for individuals in the long run. The authors concluded by noting: “There is a need for prospective studies on the potential costs and benefits of minimal footwear, such as moccasins or sandals, with relatively thin, stiff, and uncushioned soles that function more similarly to calluses, relative to highly cushioned shoes that have become common only since the industrial era.”
At Hamilton Grove Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, in Hamilton, NJ, our care programs are designed specifically to meet the unique needs and interests of seniors and long-term care patients. We emphasize restorative care, maximizing each patient’s potential to regain and maintain function and mobility.
We foster an environment that is cheerful and enthusiastic, so residents truly relish and appreciate life.
Our outstanding Social Services team works hard to ensure that every resident thrives socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
We promote a culture of independence, crucial for emotional, social, and physical health. Residents are encouraged to choose their activity and meal preferences, and to perform tasks and activities as self-sufficiently as possible.
We carefully select, train and re-train our wonderful caregivers, who are especially sensitive to the needs of our long-term care patients. They treat residents with love, compassion, and dignity.
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