Friday, January 23, 2015

Is Bare Better?...

This morning, for some strange reason, I woke up thinking about shoes. I wandered into my closet, curious about the number I had accumulated over the years and was astonished to find thirty-two pairs. How the heck did so many shoes get into my closet?!

Americans love their shoes, as do most societies where fashion trumps practicality. Do we really need so many shoes? Women are the worst culprits. It’s a luxury to have a vast selection to choose from and fashion forbids us from pairing the wrong shoes with our outfits. Think of the anarchy that would ensue should we pick strappy sandals over pumps. Oh, the humanity!!

But shoes didn’t start out as tools of fashion. The shoe evolved out of sheer necessity.

Try to imagine venturing cross-country with nothing between your feet and the torturous ground on which you tread. Rocky outcrops, razor-like switch grass, not to mention the temperature extremes of blazing deserts and icy tundra, would be pure hell. I’m guessing our clever ancestors took to shodding their feet soon after they discovered the benefits of clothing. If you can protect your torso by wrapping it in hides, why not your feet? They were no dummies, our ancestors…

One of the oldest shoes was found a few years ago, tucked inside an Armenian cave. Dated to over fifty-five hundred years ago, this leather moccasin was made from cowhide and laced with a leather cord. It had the good fortune of being buried beneath a dense layer of sheep dung, thus the exceptional preservation, but footwear goes back much further in human history.

One of the earliest forms of shoes appears to be the sandal, which is not surprising, considering its basic design. Ten-thousand-year-old sandals have been recovered from Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon, proving again what excellent preservation caves afford.

Curious sidenote: Do we find these ancient shoes in caves because people happened to be living there, or were caves the precursors to today’s walk-in closets? Something to think about.

But back to the Fort Rock sandals. They ranged in size from adult to child and showed the wear and tear of countless miles, some still sporting the mud from prehistoric landscapes. Some even held the imprint of its owner’s foot: faint impressions of a hunter who traipsed through the Oregon woods in search of game.

And speaking of feet, some of our evidence for shoes comes directly from studying the feet of our ancestors. Scientists have noted changes in the bones of our feet that may have occurred secondary to adopting footwear, possibly going back forty thousand years. Even today, shoes are reshaping our feet. Unfortunately, many of these changes are detrimental. In fact, for all the protection shoes can afford, many of the styles we sport come with repercussions.

Some evolutionists believe shoes have actually made our feet less healthy. The excellent support afforded by cushioned soles may feel luxurious, but can actually lead to weakened arches and flat feet. Thick soles also cause diminished sensation between foot and ground, which means lack of communication between foot and brain, putting you at risk for missteps and stumbles. And don’t even get me started on high heels. Yes, those stilettos may look sexy, but they’re doing your body no favors. Stress fractures, bunions, and hammertoes are just the beginning of chronic problems associated with high heels, not to mention back strain and deformation of your calf muscles, which actually become shortened with excessive wear.

While high heels present problems, so do their counterparts, the flats. Ballet flats, which are all the rage, provide little to no shock absorption; a real problem especially for those flat-footed individuals. They can also cause tendonitis and heel pain and provide scant protection against bottle tops and broken glass. But one of the biggest culprits is the flip-flop. Here in my home state of Florida, flip-flops are as prevalent as retirees (and frequently found in unison). The flip-flop is the next best thing to being barefooted, which is great for those sunbaked beaches, but provides little protection in the real world. Most are too thin and they leave the foot exposed to environmental hazards - such as that friend who chooses the stilettos -  and, let’s face it, they fall short of attractive.

So the next time you reach for a pair of shoes, choose wisely. Select your shoes as you would select a mate: something that’s well made, practical but stylish, and most important, the perfect fit.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Brainy New Year!

Now that 2014 has drawn to a close and we look ahead to the coming year, it is time to partake in that tried and true tradition of all wishful thinkers, the New Year’s Resolution. Let me guess: you’re intent on losing those extra pounds (even though you probably started accumulating them back in 2010); you’re going to dig out those musty workout clothes and force yourself to the gym (if you could only remember how to get there); and you swear to give up at least one of your vices, whether it be cigarettes, junk food, or as in my case, gin.

The New Year is a time for reflection. We look back over the past twelve months, at the changes in our lives (or lack thereof), and the swiftness with which each year passes, anticipating what lies ahead as the year unfolds before us. It can be a scary time.

Let’s face it, the older we get, the shorter our future becomes. The horizon, which seemed so far off as we cruised through adolescence, suddenly looms large before us as we find ourselves cresting the onrushing midlife wave. And with each passing December, with each approach of the New Year, we grow more aware of the “tick-tock” of Father Time.

I happen to love the New Year. To me, it signifies a fresh start, new beginnings, and the opportunity to set new goals. I know that spring is just around the corner, putting an end to the winter doldrums which, here in Florida, last for an excruciating week and a half). But all this anticipation got me thinking about that one crucial commodity for planning ahead: optimism.

Optimism is a vital mental tool, one that can not only make us feel better, but can actually improve our health. Some evolutionists believe a tendency toward optimism – what they term the “optimism bias” – is hard-wired into our brains and was integral to the dramatic cultural transformations that have taken place among humans over the past fifty thousand years. In that short span of time (geologically speaking), we have gone from artless, illiterate hunter-gatherers to beings that communicate on a global scale, create masterful works of art, and traverse the cosmos. And how could we have achieved any of this without a strong dose of optimism?

The optimism bias is universal among humans, but can vary depending on our individual wiring. Even though our brains are constructed as two mirrored halves (bilaterally symmetrical), many of our skills, such as language and handedness, are controlled by a designated half. This brainy asymmetry allows us to perform many tasks at once. And when it comes to optimism, it is the left hemisphere - or “left brain” in neuro slang - that takes the lead. 

This “lateralization” of optimistic behavior is expressed in the way we think, feel, behave, and even plan for future events. We’re all familiar with the “glass half-full-half-empty” analogy. Optimistic folks tend to focus on the positive, usually ignoring or minimizing anything that threatens to quash their rosy outlook. Pessimists (those "right brainers") do the opposite: their “half-empty” mentality tends to lead them down the gloomy paths of worry and doubt. These opposing life views have even been tested experimentally. Optimists will spend less time focusing on negative visual stimuli than their pessimistic counterparts, who not only spend more time focusing on the negative, but also tend to take greater cues from negative stimuli in their environment.

That’s not to say that pessimism should be eliminated. It serves a vital role in keeping our overly optimistic tendencies in check. Can you imagine the havoc that would ensue if we failed to anticipate setbacks, accidents, or illness? Unbridled optimism could result in financial hardship, traumatic injuries, or debilitating illness if we ignored the necessities of savings accounts, seatbelts, and preventive medicine. A little bit of pessimism goes a long way.

So as you enter the coming months and tackle your resolutions, strike a balance between your brainy halves. Approach the New Year with the utmost optimism, but temper it with a small dose of pessimism. Perhaps you will finally lose that weight, or become a model of fitness, or finally shake that vice. But if you don’t succeed, at least take comfort in the fact that you are making an effort. And remember, the key to optimism is that vital, life-sustaining force: hope.

Happy New Year!