Can Wearing Shoes Weaken Our Ankle Bones?

Your shoes are changing your feet. The ankles of people who habitually wear shoes are different to those of people who tend to walk barefoot (Sorrentino et al., 2019).

In many industrial societies, people tend to wear shoes from a young age. However, many people around the world often go barefoot, or wear only very thin footwear.

“We know that there are some variations in the feet of modern humans, due to the use of shoes,” says Rita Sorrentino at the University of Bologna in Italy.

But most previous findings relate to the front and middle of the foot. She and her team have focused on the ankle instead. They studied 142 ankle bones from 11 populations from North America, Africa and Europe. These included sandal-wearing Nguni farmers in southern Africa, people living in New York and fossilised bones from Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

The hunter-gatherers’ ankle bones were significantly shorter than those of people living in modern cities, and there were other differences in the shape. “They are mostly related to footwear-related behaviours and locomotor behaviours,” says Sorrentino.

The hunter-gatherers walked barefoot for long distances every day over natural terrain. Their ankles were relatively flexible. In contrast, people who live in big cities, who wear constrictive footwear and walk short distances on flat surfaces like asphalt roads, had more rigid ankles.

Changes to ankle bones take place over the course of a person’s life, and there is no evidence that these alterations can be passed on genetically. Solid evidence for people wearing shoes only exists for the past 10,000 years, says Sorrentino.

For instance, a sandal from a Missouri cave may be 8300 years old. Early shoes were all fairly soft, such as moccasins or sandals, so wouldn’t have
restricted the motion of the ankle much. It is an open question whether
shoes have disadvantages, but Sorrentino suspects that the rigidity of modern shoes causes our bones to become weaker and more prone to fracturing.

References

Marshall, M. (2020) Wearing Shoes Can Weaken Ankle Shoes. New Scientist. 04 January 2020. pp.14.

Sorrentino, R., Stephens, N.B., Carlson, K.J., Figus, C., Florenza. L. Frost, S., Harcourt-Smith, W., Parr, W., Saers, J., Turley, K., Wroe, S., Belcastro, M.G., Ryan, T.M. & Benazzi, S. (2019) The influence of mobility strategy on the modern human talus. American journal of Physical Anthropology. 171(3). https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23976

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