How We Move
It's not just how much we move, but the ways in which we move, that contribute to the body's development and lead us toward either healthy biomechanical balance or toward musculoskeletal dysfunction and degeneration.
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The human body developed in the context of evolution. Bipedal locomotion is one of our most defining characteristics. Not only are we good at walking on two legs, we're exceptionally good at running on them.
It turns out that there are some disadvantages to running on four legs ‒ especially if you live in a really hot climate. Because of quadruped body structure, when running at a gallop, an animal can breathe only in exact correspondence with its stride (one breath per stride), a bit like a bellows opening and closing. But because most animals are also furry and discharge heat primarily by breathing, this poses a problem when running in hot weather. Quadrupeds are very susceptible to heat stroke; once the body reaches a certain temperature, the animal shuts down.
Humans, on the other hand, have some great solutions to this. By running on two legs, we actually disengage our breathing from our stride; and we also discharge heat by sweating. We may not be able to run faster than a quadruped, but we are built to move very efficiently, and (assuming good conditioning) can almost always run farther than they can. Hence one of our evolutionary breakthroughs was in improving our food supply via the "persistence" hunt: chasing down animals until they collapsed from exhaustion or heat stroke. Tenacious!
Feet get no credit. In our society, they are never given the opportunity to perform one of their most important services for the body, meanwhile they are blamed for a wide array of dysfunctions that are not at all their fault.
If we look at the brain, it becomes abundantly clear that feet play an important role. In the somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain devoted to interpreting sensory input), there are three big sections, and a bunch of little ones, corresponding to different body parts. The big ones are the face, hands, and feet. Everything else gets markedly less real estate. This is strong evidence that sensory input from the three large areas, including the feet, played a key role in our survival; otherwise, as expensive as brains are, we would not have spent so much energy building and operating regions devoted to these parts.
So what is it that feet do? Feet teach the rest of the body how to move. Feet themselves are much like marionettes, being pulled by the strings from above (hip and leg muscles). However, the input from sensory perception is what motivates the strings. When you step on a pebble, your body automatically responds by shifting weight away from that part of the foot and distributing it elsewhere. This takes a major coordinated effort among all the muscles in the leg and hip to pull off (most of the action is happening outside the foot), not to mention core stability to keep the rest of your body balanced. Being exposed to challenging surfaces is the training that teaches your body how to coordinate!
In addition, feet are much tougher than we realize. They are very sensitive to pain ‒ by design! With such great importance to getting us around, they are designed to feel pain long before they actually get injured, to ensure you are careful to not actually injure them! It's a feature, not a flaw. Dangers both in the city and in the wild are highly overestimated, as attested by many barefoot runners and hikers and members of the Society for Barefoot Living and like organizations.
What's worse about our reliance on shoes and inhibition of our feet's natural function is that this contributes to poor development in the rest of the body! In its efforts to conserve energy, the body avoids building muscles unless there is a clear demand based on activity. With no negative reinforcement telling us about the impact forces or poor weight distribution affecting the feet, there is nothing to convince the hip and core muscles that they should develop to mitigate it! The body instead takes whatever shortcuts it can find (such as seeking stability from joints where muscular support is lacking), leading to imbalances, and ultimately many forms of musculoskeletal degeneration and chronic injuries and pain!
On the other hand, the body and brain are highly plastic. The brain can wire new movement patterns with practice. Sensitivity in the feet can be regained. Muscles in the legs, hips, and the rest of the core can be strengthened. It all starts with recognizing the essential role of our feet in communicating to our bodies about our interactions with the ground, and giving them the opportunity to do so.
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