Our Diseases of Choice

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We all have choices: what we wear, what we eat, what we do. But as we increasingly link our physical health with our personal performance, we often ignore the fact that we also have the choice to suffer. Every day we suffer aches, swelling and pain in our feet, which over time turn into troubling conditions and diagnosed foot diseases.

Make no mistake: These foot diseases do not happen to you. These are diseases of choice.

Consider this quote from Haruki Murakami, author of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you think, 'Man, this hurts, I can't take it anymore.' The 'hurt' part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself."

While Murakami sees the power of our will to overcome pain, I find myself asking, "Why does it have to hurt so bad to begin with?"

Today, our footwear and the types of physical activity we engage in may seem harmless enough. But these choices are increasingly the sources of our foot problems. As we choose to endure this pain for the sake of fashion, trends or celebrity endorsements, we transform our foot pain into a disease of choice.

The advancement of modern medicine and agriculture has increased our quality of life dramatically. We have incredible insight into the way the human body works, and food is produced across our country in abundance. In this environment, you would think the number of diseases and ailments, or at least their prevalence would decrease, but this has not proven the case. This is the incongruency of our society.

The lack of exercise and the sedentary jobs common in our society result in back problems and muscle atrophy. The modern shoe's increasing heel sizes and cushioning, coupled with our propensity for selecting the wrong shoe sizes, correlate to a jump in lower-limb problems like plantar fasciitis. The cushioning weakens our natural musculature, making the Achilles tendon especially susceptible to wear and tear. The raised heel can lead to back and posture problems due to the tilted plane you force yourself to stand and walk on. Cramped toe spaces in tight-fitting sneakers and high heels compress your toes together in an unnatural form. This can cause irregular bone growth and result in bunions.

To further the point, we see shoes commonly marketed toward athletes, promoting injury prevention and more comfortable strides. If these shoes prevent injury and increase comfort, why has the number of runners with foot injuries actually increased over time? Some two-thirds of runners have experienced some sort of foot injury, a percentage that has increased every year since the mid-1970s. The padded heels and gel cushions have shown no statistical basis for protecting a runner's foot. There is only evidence to the contrary.

One study in the 1980s showed increased cushioning in modern shoe soles actually increased the impact felt by our feet, the opposite of the intended design. These results alone should raise questions about athletic shoe development. Other studies have noted that the decreasing amount of time children spend barefoot can hinder healthy foot development. The same goes for wearing improperly sized shoes. For many years we have had statistics showing the detrimental effects of wearing modern footwear. Choosing to ignore the evidence, we willfully contract diseases of choice.

Of course, these aren't simply limited to our feet. Since 1980, obesity rates have doubled globally, and diabetes has grown by more than 176 percent in America alone. Alcoholism, heart disease, cancer and a host of mental conditions have also flourished, lightly referred to as "diseases of affluence." But as we've increasingly seen, our choices around diet, exercise and overall lifestyle have a tremendous impact on the prevalence of these diseases.

Our ancestors fought a war against the unknown, against infections they could not identify or treat. Today our afflictions are scientifically named, their symptoms and treatment public knowledge, and yet we continue to not only fall prey to them, but allow them to thrive.

Modern footwear can certainly protect your feet, and had been created with the best of intentions. But more often than not, they are facilitating foot disease. In this case we can't point to a virus, and we can't vaccinate free will. Only you can control what you do, what you eat, what you drink, and what you want to feel.

So here's an easy experiment: The next time you go barefoot, consider how the ground feels beneath your feet, and how liberated your toes feel. Compare that to how your feet feel after a full day wrapped in thick socks and tight shoes.

Tell me, what feels more natural?

Alex Charfen is a serial entrepreneur helping tens of thousands of other entrepreneurs grow their small businesses and reach peak levels of personal and business performance. He is co-founder and CEO of CHARFEN, a training, education and consulting company landing on the Inc. list of fastest growing companies in America three years in a row. In 2011, Alex was named Fittest Entrepreneur in Austin, Texas.