Modern Living: Killing Us and Our Athletic Potential?

Modern living is said to be killing us. A cocktail of concrete, sugar and screens is mixed with a lack of physical stress which can make us ill. Nature, natural food sources and physical exercise are often suggested as the antidote. Although our modern lifestyles are associated with a lack of physical stress, they promote mental stress which in turn can manifest physically. Inflammation, tension and chronic pain have a strong psychological component. Practices such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation or a combination are often used to try and lower our mental stress.

Why do we struggle with modern living?

We spent millions of years evolving to cope with outdoor environments, the need to hunt and gather; to digest a variety of foods; to undergo times of food surplus and shortage; and to inter-depend with each other. Our physical make-up and many of our emotional needs stem from millions of years in existence prior to the relatively new modern environments we inhabit.

Ever changing outdoor environments which required nimble foot structures have been replaced by a paved consistency and our feet covered with an unyielding structure known as the shoe. Relatively speaking, there is no longer a need to hunt and gather. Physical occupations and non-motorized transport may have mimicked hunter-gathering for a while but such occupations and forms of transport have been in decline for some time. Food is increasingly processed and in constant supply (for most if not all of us). Rarely are we challenged to go without food or to change diet as seasons change (Although, I did spend 6-months in New Zealand recently, where supermarkets still support local farmers by adhering to seasonal variation i.e. if it’s not in season you can’t have it or it is very expensive). Finally, the human spirit is still very much intact but a strict need to inter-depend in adulthood to survive, no longer exists. We can survive with increasing self-sufficiency even if this may not allow our mental health to thrive.

Where to from here?

Modern living is here to stay. And for the moment at least, so is the majority of our body and mind, which were built for a time that no-longer exists. The question is how can we exist in an urban environment while closer approximating a lifestyle more suited to what our bodies evolved for. There is no one size fits all. The solutions, many listed above, are numerous and probably need to be combined for maximum effect. Addressing the cause using a preventative approach rather than managing the symptoms is the only approach that can yield long term benefits.

How might Universities and industry combine to move toward solutions?

Our musculoskeletal health research group at Leeds Beckett University and minimalist footwear company Vivobarefoot have launched a research partnership to tackle issues associated with the health of our feet. An unrestricted minimalist footwear may allow our feet greater freedom to move while still being protected from sharp objects or extreme temperatures. In addition, the foot is highly a sensitised structure (just as much as our hands) and it is the only point of contact with the ground. Increased sensation under our feet may allow us move in a more mindful way whilst also strengthening the physical structures in our feet and lower limbs.

The main interests of this partnership can be summarised as follows;

  1. What is the impact of minimalist footwear on the development of the foot in children compared to those who grow up in traditional footwear? Furthermore, what are the potential implications of developmental differences on movement skills and musculoskeletal health in adulthood.
  2. To understand what the impact of transitioning from traditional footwear to minimalist footwear is for musculoskeletal health and treatment of existing musculoskeletal conditions.

The partnership begins with the funding of 2-full time PhD students to commence research in the area.

Vivo Barefoot Launch

Pictured left: Dr. Peter Francis, Maisie Squibb, Hannah Blackburn (Leeds Beckett University) Pictured right: Galahad Clark (founder), Ben Le Vesconte and Jodie Smith (Vivobarefoot)