Free the foot
The strange business of walking
We do it without thinking and have been doing it for thousands of years. But we’ve lost the art of saunter and the touch of the earth on our soles.
This morning you rolled out of bed and did one of the most confounding things known to paleoanthropology: you stood up.
Several million years ago when your ancestors did that, they should have been immediately spotted and eaten. At about the same time, proto-humans lost their scary canines and hadn’t yet invented tools, so they couldn’t defend themselves.
Evolutionary pressure got it right. But how on earth did we become vertical, bipedal, fangless, hairless — and survive? The greatest minds in the business of digging up old bones admit they simply don’t know. But theories abound.
One is that we were forced onto the African savanna by declining forests and stood up to see over the grass. But that’s been debunked because the fossil record shows we never lived there but on the forest edge.
Another theory is that our pre-human ancestors took to the water, becoming aquatic apes. You don’t need hair in water and we have more fat under our skin than all other land mammals. We can also swim better than any other primate and our nostrils are built so we don’t take water when we dive. But no, the fossil record shows huge crocs in the Rift Valley lakes where we are thought to have begun.
A possibility is that we stood to show off our sexual organs for appraisal — a man has twice a gorilla’s tackle and a woman has the biggest breasts per body size of all mammals. Blatant peacockery. But you don’t need to walk to do that.
It could also have been because it was hot in Africa. Standing up with a mop on your head offered the smallest body area to be roasted by the beating sun. But that doesn’t explain why all our fellow primates and a good few mammals besides didn’t take that shadier past.
There’s an even more interesting theory. A specialist on biomechanical locomotion, Owen Lovejoy, suggests that bipedalism is related to cooperation and increasing monogamy. It was far safer for an early hominid mother to stay home with the kids while the males went hunting for food.
All other primates eat what they find, but to bring food home required the ability to carry it and walking on two legs made that possible. Females would select males who lost out in the warring stakes because of poor dentures and who therefore cooperated with them and other males in order to survive. To do that they needed to become bipedal.
Their young survived better under this arrangement, emulated their parents and went on to conquer the world. Our first tool may not have been the hand axe but the shopping bag.
But of course, there were going to be problems with legs and feet that started life at right angles to the body. And being vertical in a busy, hard-pavement modern world, we walk badly. Or we sit on our bums all day and screw up our backs, then wonder why walking hurts.
The word saunter isn’t used much these days, probably because so few of us do it. Instead we march. The dictionary links sauntering to words like amble, meander, drift, mosey and, my favourite, tootle. It is probably derived from the French sans terre, without land or simply drifter.
The great American wanderer, Henry David Thoreau, who cut loose from civilisation to live in the woods beside Walden Pond, had little time for those who didn’t do it:
“He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the saunterer is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”
Sauntering implies a way of walking (just tootling along) but also an awareness of actually walking. And that awareness was evidently once vitally important to us as a species: our feet have more nerve endings per square centimetre than anywhere else on our body.
“Your feet are designed to feed multiple information to your brain,” said podiaitrist (foot doctor) Chris Delpierre when I tracked him down at the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, when trying to work out the right shoes to run with. “They check the surface you’re walking on, the temperature, gradient, grip and balance. So obviously the best way to walk is barefoot or with a minimalist shoe. If you lock up your foot in a boot you blindfold it.
“We’ve lost the art of barefoot walking,” he said. “Our ancestors had hard feet and could run on them all day. But our feet have evolved. They have much softer skin. And because of shoes, we walk differently.”
Together with biokineticist Avi Pursad, Chris explained why by slipping off his shoes and waggling his toes. “Your foot is designed to bend and when this happens it does two very different things milliseconds apart. On contact with the ground your heel acts like a turd from a tall cow and blobs. As soon as you roll forwards the tendons go soft allowing the bones to spread and your foot to widen.
“A fraction of a second later it has to become rigid and it does this when your big toe as it hits the ground. This tightens your foot bones which become a lever for forward motion.
“So if your foot doesn’t bend, it remains a soft, squidgy thing which loses its power as a precision device for walking on. That’s what happens in a rigid boot.”
The motion of walking is the biokineticist’s department: “As your foot bends,” Avi explained, “the load chain goes through your ankle, up your leg into your knee and hip, which all start to take more weight. If you don’t have that signal from your big toe, your load transfer is going to go somewhere else. This will change your movement dynamics — and that’s when injuries can happen.”
Marguerite Osler, an Alexander Technique teacher, become so concerned about people stomping and shuffling around that she wrote a book to help them walk. The Art of Walking is more poetry than prose and more Zen than science but is a lyrical plea to take off our shoes and live. There are, she says, three causes for our crippled locomotion: fashion, the cult of exercise and a tradition of military marching.
“Women have had the worst of fashion,” she said, also wiggling her bare toes at me. “Men’s fashions have always been more sensible, but women’s fashion shoes are manufactured to make money and not aid walking.
“Sports shoes can be much better, but the fitness ethic is to go further, hammer harder and push to the limit. That’s bad news for feet. Then there’s our required bearing; upright, proud, elegant and … well, military. Children don’t walk like us. We start strutting around as teenagers and never stop. Good walking is effortless, springy, quiet and gentle on the body. It’s a glide. That way you can walk forever.”
So should we all be going barefoot or in floppy tekkies? Chris Delpierre shook his head. “It’s not as easy as that. Barefoot walking requires constant awareness. If you’re a younger person or you hike a lot or trail run in the mountains, your best bet is to stay as fit and agile as possible and wear as little shoe as you can.
“It’s a compromise of course. Barefoot or with minimalist shoes you risk thorns, stress fractures and even scorpion bites, but your whole system will function more efficiently. But when you get older or are a weekend warrior and pad around the office all week, you need to step out into the wilds with a good, supportive boot and a trekking pole. Especially if you’re carrying 20kg on your back.
“Something like one tenth of everyone who ends up in a hospital emergency room world over is there because of a twisted and sprained ankle. It’s our weak point and that’s what a boot prevents.
“But on average most of us walk around eight to 10 kilometres a day on perfectly flat urban surfaces. We’d all be in much better shape if we did that barefoot, or with as little as possible on our feet.”
He wiggled is toes again and I had to admit, they did look very happy being free. I could easily imagine them on an amiable saunter. DM/ ML
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