Binary Thinking: Standing Barefoot or Sitting With Shoes

(Silicon Valley | HBO)

(Silicon Valley | HBO)

Sometimes, when we meet people dying of thirst, we may suggest that they drink more water. And occasionally one of them will email you an article disputing the benefits. 

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I am writing this article from my standing desk. My prediction for you is that in the next few years you will see a trending of articles disparaging the standing desk, but not for the reasons you think. You will hear that it is not good for you — that it's not good for your knees, feet, back, and every other section of your body. Many years ago when I began teaching the traditional method of running (midfoot/ forefoot striking, using the feet and calves like springs), I predicted that the media would eventually dismiss barefoot shoes as a dangerous fad. I looked like a genius when this finally happened, but really, it's not fortune telling — our reactions are fairly predictable.

Decision-Making Defaults: Left or Right

It's simple to make decisions binary: "yes" or "no." People assumed that barefoot running shoes would automatically optimize their running mechanics. Why? Because running heel-toe would be so obviously painful, people would self-correct through trial and error — a form of self-preservation. That is not what happened. For many, the only thing that changed were their shoes. Some who never ran before began to run — and got hurt. Many of the injuries were unrelated to shoes. The truth is, many sedentary people will get hurt once they move beyond usual their threshold — the reasons for which are various.

Primitive Thinking

This illustration was the frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. Huxley applied Darwin's ideas to humans, using comparative anatomy to show that humans and apes had a common ancestor, which challenged the theological idea that humans held a unique place in the universe. It was the first book devoted to the topic of human evolution, which Darwin deliberately avoided in The Origin of Species.

This illustration was the frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. Huxley applied Darwin's ideas to humans, using comparative anatomy to show that humans and apes had a common ancestor, which challenged the theological idea that humans held a unique place in the universe. It was the first book devoted to the topic of human evolution, which Darwin deliberately avoided in The Origin of Species.

The calves and calcaneal tendons have grown too short for many folks. (Due to a lifetime of wearing shoes where the heels are higher than the forefoot.) Most modern shoes are not designed with neutral soles. It's tempting to say, "Well, this is how it's always been," so, why fix something that's not broken? But in truth, the trend of modified shoes started in the 70s — and injuries dramatically increased. (The same applies to helmets in football and gloves in boxing, it only increased brain trauma. The extra padding altered form for the worse.) Barefoot running shoes exploded in popularity as a direct reaction to these injuries.

Perhaps we should not have converted to the new sporty shoe, but we have. We've crossed that bridge, and we've adapted. Many have not walked with their heels even with their toes (neutral) since they were toddlers. For the older population, not since Converse was the standard footwear. When the general population began to wear shoes that brought their feet back to neutral, rather than their calcaneal tendons breathing a sigh of relief, it was being stretched. When they started to run, colliding with the pavement in their old form, injuries happened. (Shoes alone will not change habits.)

People with preexisting injuries jumped on the bandwagon, thinking this was their ticket to pain-free running. Injuries worsened. The binary thought went from "this is an instant cure" to "this is an instant dud," with no middle ground, and that is a shame. This over-simplistic thinking robs both parties of potential benefit.

Common Fallacies

A dog is an animal so all animals are dogs. This is a common association fallacy. If you're a good runner and have healthy ankles, it may make more sense to wear neutral shoes. But wearing neutral shoes will not automatically make you a good runner or strengthen your legs. (A dog is an animal but not all animals are dogs.)

With my students: I broke up the scar tissue on their feet, had them walk barefoot on judo mats, lengthened the back parts of their legs, worked on toe extension and foot balance, aligned their gait and posture, then adjusted their running form (including the movement of their arms). Then I had them put on neutral shoes and work their way to longer distances. However, regardless of the type of shoe (neutral or not), my recommendation was to avoid pavement if possible. (Even in tennis, you will have better longevity if you also play on clay and grass, rather than only hardcourt.)

So what happened? Foot pain disappeared, people with fallen arches developed arches, people suffering back pain found relief, people who never thought they would run again were running again. Was this magic? No. Do I have a special method? Yes, logic and patience; they have been my greatest assets in helping to reduce injury.

My warning to those I worked with was not to get distracted when they heard neutral/ barefoot shoes were "bad," because those articles didn't apply to them. My students never believed the shoes were going to be a magic bullet (just as wrestling shoes won't make you a wrestler).

I've seen people break their hands because the wraps (or gloves) gave the user a false sense of security. They became careless and paid the price. The purpose is to give the user a certain amount protection while still being able to feel feedback. Boxing is technical, but so is running. Gloves/ wraps and shoes are not just comparable, their purpose is identical. As with the wrap, the shoe should conform to the feet, not the feet conform to the shoe. Moreover, landing with the heel while running is like punching with the wrong part of the hand. (Or perhaps like a boxer stomping around the ring rather than bouncing on their toes.)

Everyone Is Different

For some, neither neutral shoes nor running will ever be a good idea. The reasons may vary from individual to individual. We are all different, and the activity should match the individual. This stubbornness to insist on doing things that are contraindicated causes avoidable injuries. Yet, stubbornness will likely never show up on studies as a cause of injury. How do you quantify stubbornness in self-evaluated studies on running? Even if it were true, few would answer, yes.

Barefoot running is the canary in the mine. The real danger is sedentary living, and many of us cannot revert back to our original movement patterns. (Just as it would be extremely difficult for American football players to go back tackling like they did during the leather helmet days.)

It's not that the old ways are inferior or wrong, but rather, the old ways are too advanced (complicated), when we want convenience. Hominids have the fundamental ability to squat all the way to the ground, yet most of the First World (First World means the luxury to buy convenience) is losing that capacity. And some will never be able to turn this around. And some will never miss it, just as some never miss being outside.

The Standing Desk Will Be the Next Victim of Binary Thinking

(The Vitruvian Man | Leonardo da Vinci)

(The Vitruvian Man | Leonardo da Vinci)

Our bodies have 360 joints, give or take. If you stay stationary in any one position, some of these joints will be compressed, and some of these joints will stretch out. We distribute this wear and tear by regularly moving, redistributing the load and diffusing damage. Whether you sit or stand, doing any one thing for too long will be damaging. An adjustable standing desk is both a regular desk and a desk that allows you to stand. That's a start but not enough, you also need to walk away from the desk — every 20 minutes, if possible.

What's practical for you? I don't know. I don't know you. If you only get up every four hours, then getting up every two hours is an improvement. That's what's important, not all in or all out, but what is practical.

If you get a standing desk thinking it will be a magic pill, "Now I can stand 8-12 hours and be in good shape," you will be wrong. You will have a variation of the same problem, being sedentary. It changed from sitting to standing, and just like security guards and factory workers who stand for long hours, similar pain can develop.

Healthy people tend to stand, but that's because healthy people don't like to sit for long. We're mistaking the effect for the cause. Standing alone will not make you healthy. Improve posture, make movement a lifestyle, and then think about a standing desk (just as you have to learn how to box before you are allowed to spar, hopefully.)

The Core Problem

Saying "core" is like saying the f-word to a child; eyes light up, and that's where everyone will fixate. (Elite strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline avoids the situation by using the term "waist" or "trunk.") Yes, the core is important, but it, too, has become a bit of a magic pill. We think we can overcome all physical issues by strengthening the core. But general ideas of the core are incorrect, which is why the emphasis is on the front of the abs, often at the harm of every other part of the core.

The core is everything in the middle of you, even the internal parts, like your diaphragm and lungs (vital capacity). However, nothing — no diet, no exercise — can compensate for being willfully disabled.

Rather than a holistic change in behavior, an overemphasis on a single variable leads to compensation. If you ran with one shoe on, would you compensate? Yes. Would it suck? Yes. Would changing one variable and not adjusting everything else to this new variable also cause compensation? Yes. In studies, when people who pronated were given new shoes to correct pronation, without being taught how to run without pronating, their injuries increased greater than prior.

Moving better, improving posture, rehabilitating underlying issues, and strengthen the core. But maintaining progress requires regular movement. We can't fragment the body and we can't fragment activities; it has to be a whole change. It's the only rational long-term solution. Look for that one thing to improve your health, and you will be why they draw negative health conclusions.

The media turned on the "core" craze, just as they did with barefoot running. People overdid it until we saw a surge in back injuries related to abdominal exercises. Are these tools the problem or are we the problem? Everything looks great, initially, until we get the data from the people who overdo it (CrossFit is another example of this). Then the consensus flips from, "this activity is good" to "this activity is bad." As if all or none are the only options. People will get unhealthy in their pursuit of health; that's the irony. That's how we make decisions, like an on/ off switch, when recurring decisions are more like a dial.

Reading Health Articles

When reading a study, see how it was done and who was being studied. Studies tend to be very specific, it may not apply to you. The media, however, does not want specific clicks, they want as many eyeballs as possible. They will turn a specific study with loose results, into a broad study with concrete findings. (And even if they don't, we may interpret it that way, so we must keep ourselves in check, as well.)

Reading the article (or headline) is not the same as reading the actual study. (However, news sources are not all equal, some are far and away better than others.) Sometimes the article is like a parody. For example, if a study claims straight vodka is less dangerous than mixed drinks, an article may read, "Vodka Is Good for You!"

Even drinking plenty of water has been dismissed, with studies of people who were sick (drinking sea water) or dying from over-consumption (drowning). Yes, everything should be done within reason, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater (no pun intended). In general, water is a good idea, you need it to live, but don't quote me on it (or send me an article blasting the benefits of water).

Sometimes, when we meet people dying of thirst, we may suggest that they drink more water. And occasionally one of them will email you an article disputing the benefits. Yes, it may not be a cure-all and not benefit everyone, but you only made the suggestion because it was better than what they were doing previously, dying of dehydration.

A Final Thought Experiment

So, here's something to think about before you dismiss something that seems unconventional: If aliens came to Earth, what would be stranger, the few who do everything correctly to preserve their health or the many who insist on hurting themselves? We may think it's weird to squat around a fire but what about our modern convention of blowing fire off of a cake once a Roman year? Or putting packages under a tree that we will immediately throw away while we wait for an elderly fat man in a red suit to climb down a chimney most of us don't have?

Sometimes, considering things from an outside perspective helps us to see, that, just because something is normal does not mean it is rational.

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