Barely News

October 17, 2010

By LIZ BERRY
The News and Advance
LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) – Daniel Howell walks barefoot across the cement floor of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, past the condiment stand and public restrooms, to join his family in a booth.

Today his bare feet attract little attention, but he’s used to confrontation.

He keeps a letter in his car from the Virginia state health department explaining that it’s not a health code violation for patrons to go barefoot in restaurants.

Howell, a biology professor at Liberty University, goes barefoot whenever he can. For the past two years, he’s been on a crusade to challenge America’s cultural addiction to shoes and to raise awareness of the benefits of barefoot.

“We live in a shoe-obsessed society,” Howell said. “To our detriment.”

He recently published “The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes” and devoted the summer to a 21-state book tour, staying barefoot 24/7.

Howell asserts that barefoot walking is essential to healthy feet. He likens a shoe to a cast that immobilizes an otherwise healthy foot and prevents it from functioning as nature intended.

Shoes, he argues, can lead to problems like hammertoe and knee arthritis.

“It’s getting to be quite well known that shoes change the way you run,” he said. “They also change the way you walk. They change the way you stand. They’re bad for you when you sit. They’re just bad for you.”

Howell wasn’t always a barefoot guy.

That started about three years ago, when he took up barefoot running.

At 37 years old, he couldn’t run father than a mile and was battling recurring injuries. Barefoot running was gaining traction in running communities, so he decided to try it out.

The first time he went barefoot, he ran three miles. The second time, he ran five.

“That was great except for the next eight weeks I could barely walk My legs hurt so bad, my calves hurt.”

Howell learned the hard way the importance of taking it slow. The body becomes so conditioned to shoes that going barefoot all at once can shock to the system, he said.

There were other hazards, too, such as stepping on glass or sharp debris in the road. Howell had to train himself to watch his step wherever he went.

Mile by mile, Howell weaned his feet off sneakers. His running took off, and his injuries subsided.

Howell has logged more than 2,000 barefoot miles. September marked his third time running the Virginia Ten Miler barefoot.

Soon Howell’s barefoot running began to bleed into other areas of his life.

At his farmhouse in Bedford County, he found himself playing in the front yard with his children barefoot.

He would drive to work barefoot and would even attend church services barefoot.

“You begin spending more and more and more time barefoot,” Howell said. “You’re kind of pushing the envelope in terms of where you can go and what you can do. But it was a very gradual process.”

The more Howell went barefoot, the more he realized the extent American shoe-culture and the barefoot taboo.

“The physical hurdles are nothing compared to the social ones.”

Social attitudes toward shoes have changed overtime, Howell said. In the early 20th century, bare feet were more common in the U.S., especially with children.

“You can take a snapshot from a classroom photographed in the 1920s, 1930 If not 100 percent, than the vast majority of children are barefoot Now shoes are mandated.”

About two years ago, Howell began walking into local businesses barefoot just to see how employees would react.

Though going barefoot is not a health code violation in restaurants and businesses, employees can and do ask him to leave. Beach towns tend to be more accepting of bare feet, but most of the time, business owners frown upon them, Howell said.

“You can go into Walmart one day and nobody bats an eye, and you go in another day and they kick you out,” he said. “And you go back the next day, and they don’t care again. So it’s totally random.”

Public bathrooms are one place Howell dreads.

“I avoid them like the plague,” he said. “That said, other than the yuckiness of it, it’s not a particularly dangerous place. It’s just the idea of it that’s yucky to me.”

Howell’s barefoot crusade has touched others.

At Liberty, he is known as “The Barefoot Professor.”

At races, strangers will ask him for advice about barefoot running.

Howell’s wife, Carla, has taken up barefoot running and encourages her children to go barefoot at home.

Though she supports her husband’s barefoot lifestyle, she prefers to wear shoes in public.

“I’m not as much as a public barefooter,” said Carla, a self-described “rule-follower.” “I still have to get past the social aspect of going out barefoot.”

As Howell knows firsthand, the workplace can be a place where diehard barefooters have to compromise.

Liberty University allowed Howell to go barefoot at the beginning of the semester, while he was promoting his book. Now he is required to wear shoes in the classroom, which Howell said he complies with.

Still, going barefoot has caught on with others in the Liberty community.

Jim Hendricks, a senior software developer at Liberty, met Dr. Howell last month at a race in Roanoke. Henricks is recovering from an ankle injury and is incorporating barefoot walking into his routine.

“Now that I’ve done it couple of times, it was quite enjoyable,” he said. “To me it was freeing, it was more natural.”

Caitlin Hubbard, a Liberty University graduate, got interested in the barefoot lifestyle after taking Howell’s anatomy class last spring.

“I’ve never really been a fan of shoes and (The Barefoot Book) sort of gave evidence for why I never liked them,” Hubbard said. “It’s kind of ingrained that you must always wear shoesNow I think if you’re more comfortable going barefoot, then you should.”

For Howell, an ideal world would be one where people could go barefoot when they chose, without the fear of social stigma.

“Because I go barefoot so much, people think I’m an extremist,” Howell said. “From my perspective, people who wear shoes all everywhere they go, seven days a week, every year of your life, that’s extreme. . . I’m being an extremist. You’re being an extremist. Let’s find a nice, healthy middle ground.”

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