There was a time when Helen Snider scoffed at comfortable shoes. “I wore the highest heels or the highest platforms or whatever was the height of fashion," says the former fashion wholesaler. "I’d see people on the street wearing comfortable shoes and think, ‘Oh, I’d rather be dead.'" But Snider, 46, has traded in stilettos for three pairs of high-tech comfort shoes. "Emotionally, I had a hard time with it," recalls the resident of Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. "The first pair I chose was not very attractive. But once I wore them for 48 hours, I wouldn’t take them off. I was more comfortable in my shoes than in my bare feet.”
Snider is not the only baby boomer tossing her heels for the shoes that grandma used to wear. Comfort is the most sought-after quality among shoe buyers 45 and older, says Maureen Atkinson, a senior retail consultant with Toronto-based J. C. Williams Group. And they are willing to increase their spending by as much as 50 per cent to get it. ‘You can only imagine it is going to be more of an issue as we get older and our feet get sorer,” says Atkinson, who ran a series of focus groups on shoe preferences this year.
According to Jonathan Walford, curator of The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, foot comfort first became an issue when mass production started in the late 19th century. Before that, shoes were custom-made of soft, flexible materials. “What we have done with mass production is build shoes so sturdily that your foot is fighting with your shoe to see who wins,” says Walford.
Sturdiness would be all right if fashion did not require people to stick their feet into narrow shoes, adds Winnipeg podiatrist Martin Colledge. Podiatrists estimate that 80 per cent of North Americans experience foot pain at some point in their lives. About half the cases can be attributed to poor footwear, especially high heels and tight shoes. Shoes can either cause problems or aggravate an existing foot imbalance, adds Colledge. Either way, their effects usually show up around middle age. “It is really an insidious, gradual process, and then you reach a point where your body doesn’t like it any more.”
A tight fit will eventually cause everything from corns to pinched nerves and permanent, painful thickening of the bones. High heels force weight onto the front of the foot and put extra pressure on the bone behind the big toe. As a result, women who wear high heels develop bunions—an enlargement of the big-toe joint—at about nine times the rate of men, says Toronto podiatrist Hartley Miltchin. Even wearing the wrong sports shoes can hurt, adds Glenn Copeland, author of The Foot Doctor. He says boomers who overdid their fitness routines in the 1970s and 1980s, or who are desperately trying to get fit now as they approach 50, are starting to feel their feet. “One of the big things is they might have worn tennis shoes to run,” he says. “Now they are getting to a stage where, forget running, they are having trouble walking.”
If baby boomers are having problems with their feet, shoemakers and retailers are racing to solve them. For anywhere from $150 to more than $400, specialty stores now offer shoes with latex soles, tiny channels that allow the shoe to breathe, and extra space for a custom orthotic—an insert that corrects imbalances in the feet. They are all packed into shoes that look at least halfway stylish, says Snider, who adds that she no longer feels like she is wearing “weird, orthopedic things.” And they are packaged and sold as high-technology. Nike recently installed a computer in its Manhattan store that decides which shoe style is the best fit. Birkenstock last month introduced a new version of its sandal featuring a computergenerated custom orthotic base. And last spring, H. H. Brown Shoe Company (Canada) Ltd. introduced its first “health shoe,” aimed at relieving foot-related pain all through the body. Like most modern shoes with comfort features, the design for the Biowalk Body System shoe is based on biomechanical research. The result, claims president Darryl Harris, is a shoe that helps its wearer walk faster. ‘You actually feel like you are being propelled forward,” he says.
While experts agree on the importance of comfortable shoes, they also say consumers should cast a skeptical eye on manufacturers’ claims. “A lot of it is overkill,” says Miltchin. “A good supportive, lightweight shoe is going to be beneficial. Anything past that isn’t really necessary.”
Tips for the walking wounded
Shoes with built-in comfort features can go a long way towards preventing and
relieving foot pain. Important features:
• sturdiness, lightness and a pliant, shock-absorbing sole.
• breathable materials, such as leather or nylon, to help prevent conditions such as athlete’s foot.
• shoes should be a thumbnail’s width longer than the longest toe and leave room at the sides for toes to wiggle. Shopping at the end of the day, when feet are swollen, is best—if people can stand it.
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