Feet first!

Don't be a fashion victim! Respect your body and soles!


Somewhere in the march of progress, we lost sight of our feet. Though there are cutting-edge running shoes incorporating space technology for maximum performance, many of us gladly choose low-tech gear in the name of style. We are willing fashion victims, but the damage can be more serious than many realize.

Not so long ago in Japan, the media was making much of young girls dangerously tottering on towering platform boots and sandals, with atsuzoko-related injures widely cited as examples of fashion’s folly.

That precarious trend was followed by the current vogue for mules, whose popularity is easily recognized by any city commuter exposed daily to the loud clip-clopping of the mule-shod masses.

Noise aside, these heeled sandals with no strap to hold them to the back of the foot do seem more harmless, even liberating, compared to their fashion predecessors, and they have been embraced by a wider age group. But while the risk of tumbling from high altitudes has obviously decreased, there’s still a price to pay for wearing them.

“Mules are not designed to support the whole foot and are hardly suitable footwear for much walking,” says Mayumi Katase, an associate professor in the physical and life sciences division at Kinjo Gakuin University in Nagoya. “Those who wear them are regarding footwear as just another fashion accessory.”

This particular fashion accessory, which harks back to the mule rage of the 1950s when the woman’s heel was thought to be particularly sexy, has been booming over the past two summers. In July 2000, a survey by Katase’s university found that 90 percent of all 333 of its female students owned mules, with 60 percent wearing them daily.

Although the students generally insisted their mules were both cool and easy to wear, more than half also reported feet and calf fatigue. What’s more, 70 percent said they’d had “dangerous” accidents while wearing them, mainly stumbling and falling down.

“When you think about the role of shoes in protecting the feet and providing support throughout the day,” Katase says, “mules are not the right choice.”

Realistically, many types of shoes, be they trendy or traditional (the standard-issue salaryman shoe, for example), could be called the wrong choice.

So does this mean we all have to switch to sensible, arch-supportive, lumbar-corrective, orthopedic shoes? Well, that’s your decision, but heed the experts. Foot problems may not be fatal in themselves, they say, but the long-term effects can be very serious.

Now, take two seconds to give your feet a serious look. Did you know there are 26 bones in each? (That’s about one-quarter of the bones in your body.) These intricate examples of organic design comprise 33 joints, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles and tendons. They are built to last, but simple wear and tear can lead to a variety of problems: from bunions, heel spurs and shin splints to more debilitating neural and skeletal disorders.

The feet are an important part of a person’s entire well-being. In some conditions, such as diabetes or arthritis, they act as a warning system by displaying the initial symptoms. As an old Japanese saying puts it, “Ashi wa daini no shinzo de aru (Feet are the second heart).”

The second heart?

Tadao Ishizuka, an orthopedic surgeon and the director of Jonan Hospital in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, says it would take a day to explain this concept in full. Instead, he divulges just a few “secrets of the feet.”

Consider, he says, that humans, unlike most legged creatures and objects subject to gravity’s pull, have only two legs and two feet to share their body weight and to stabilize balance. In general, he points out, objects need at least three supporting legs for stability (like a tripod), with four legs being even better (like a cat or even Tokyo Tower).

“Obviously, legs and feet bear a considerable burden,” Ishizuka continues. “Studies show that a person weighing 68 kg puts 82 kg, or some 20 percent more than their body weight, on each foot with every walking step. The load on each foot increases when a person walks fast or runs — and, when jumping, it can reach up to six times their weight.”

With the average person estimated to take about 7,500 steps daily, covering around 6 km, the legs of someone weighing just 68 kg would support upward of 615 tons a day. As the average distance covered on foot over a lifetime is estimated at 180,000 km (equal to four times around the Earth), the feet of that same 68-kg person would bear in total about 18.5 million tons.

These facts illustrate the heavy responsibility we place on our feet, Ishizuka says. “And the function of your feet is closely connected with those of your heart and your brain, too.”

This is because as we walk, our foot muscles help to activate blood circulation and assist the function of the heart. In turn, this helps deliver more oxygen to the brain. So it is that, wittingly or unwittingly, people often go out for a walk to mull over some problematic issue. Recall Kyoto’s Tetsugaku-no-Michi (The Path of Philosophy), a kilometer-long stretch favored by the philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), and the Philosophers Path of the university city of Heidelberg, Germany.

Conceivably, Japan could blame many of its foot problems on the West. Before the start of the Meiji Era in 1868, almost all footwear was either geta (wooden sandals) or zori (thonglike sandals, often made of straw). Meiji’s Westernization introduced shoes that cover the feet, but both tradition and the relative cost kept them off of most Japanese feet until the early Showa Era (1926-1989). It was only after World War II that shoe sales began to skyrocket.

But, even without adopting the styles of the West, the Japanese were, it seems, likely to encounter problems. Recent studies have indicated that barefoot is best.

Research by New York’s Columbia University has shown that among people who go without footwear, foot problems are few. In fact, a survey by the university found that in the United States, Europe and Japan, about 60 percent of all orthopedic conditions requiring treatment involved feet. In areas where few people wear shoes, the equivalent figure was a mere 3 percent.

But is going completely barefoot a realistic option in this modern society? Well, it is — if you want the soles of your aching feet massaged.

The Chinese practice of massaging the feet’s many pressure points (tsubo in Japanese) to benefit the health of all parts of the body and its organs has long been accepted in this country. Recently, salons practicing relaxation-oriented foot massages have caught on.

Keiko Fujita, president of the Reflexology Association of Japan, is a practitioner of what she calls “British-style reflexology.” This is, essentially, a service to ease the mind and not heal the body, though Fujita has retained a smattering of Oriental-style massage techniques involving the foot’s pressure points.

Fujita’s innovative style has caught on quickly. Her 43 salons nationwide turned over 4 billion yen in the last fiscal year.

Beyond reflexology, shiatsu and other feet-soothing measures, the orthopedic surgeon Ishizuka actually does recommend spending some time barefoot — maybe in the park. While you’re at it, why not try some foot exercises? Spread your toes wide and try to use them to pick up objects such as pencils.

In short: Look after your feet, and they will look after you.