Carpet Rage

I was turning away from the water fountain at the gym last night, after having played a half-dozen games of racquetball, when a women I’d never noticed before said, “Can I ask you why you’re in your bare feet?”

“Do you want the long answer or the short one?” I replied genially.

It’s a question I’m asked frequently. If all you want to hear is that my plantar fasciitis has disappeared and I feel much less pain in my left hip and knee since I started running, hiking and playing racquetball in bare feet—or in minimalist shoes when I’m navigating rocky or gravelly terrain (Vibram Five Fingers or Stem Footwear)—I’m happy to leave it at that.

If you want a longer discourse on what a growing body of exercise physiologists say about millions of years of evolution being undone by propped-up heels and excessively cushioned soles cleverly marketed by Nike et al, I can go into some detail on that, too, as well as recommend a reading list of books, articles and websites. Then there's the growing body of evidence that “grounding” with the earth in bare feet has additional health benefits.

But, as it turned out, this lady wasn’t really interested at all in hearing what I had to say. Before I knew it, she was blasting me for having the temerity to expose my feet to a carpet that she gets down upon to exercise.

Never mind the fact that I only play racquetball at this gym and don’t exercise in the same places she does.

Never mind the fact that there are yoga classes in those spaces where she exercises and some of the yogis and yoginis are, no doubt, barefoot.

I’m not unsympathetic to people thinking that walking around barefoot is a bit wacky. Two years or so ago, I felt exactly the same way. But it quickly became clear that that this woman was just plain outraged. It was as if I’d been walking around the gym in a jockstrap.

“People wear shoes in gyms,” she huffed.

The next time someone says that to me, I will reply: “You’re absolutely right. Most people do wear sneakers in gyms. The questions are ‘Why?’ and “Do they need to?’.”

This time, I did not. Clearly, she was not in the mood for a reasoned debate.

“I’m sure the management requires shoes,” she said.

It doesn’t. In fact, the president and CEO of the gym was so intrigued by what I was doing that he tried it himself a few times on the racquetball court. But at 72, he decided it was a new trick he didn’t need to develop. That’s fine. If you’re more comfortable wearing shoes, you clearly should. This burgeoning barefoot movement is not a criminal enterprise masquerading as a cult out to wreak injury and misinformation on our young ’uns, as some might have you believe.

I’ll will admit that one of the managers at the gym did suggest that I should sign a waiver of liability in the event, I guess, that I stub my toe on a wall in the racquetball court. I said sure, no problem. I’ve yet to see the paperwork. It’s all a little silly considering that people routinely knock their heads against those very walls and I’ve seen a nasty gash or two -– in the mirror -- from an errant backhand to the face.

I did point out to the woman that her shoes were most likely much dirtier than my feet (unless she washes them every day, too). Although some people reserve a special pair of athletic shoes for the gym, many do not. If I were to step in something unseemly, like chewing gum or dog poop, believe me, I’d notice it and sanitize my feet. Nor does everyday crud collect on my callused soles the way that it does in the ridges, whirls and pockets of hi-tech athletic shoes.

She then played the “foot fungus” card. Well, most foot fungus, I’ve read, thrives in warm, damp places like, say, the insides of socks encased in tight shoes that are engaged in a sweat-producing activity like group exercise. I’ve had athlete’s foot. It’s gone. I’ve had a fungal toenail. It’s much better since I’ve gone barefoot most of the time.

But here’s a larger point: From what I can gather, there’s much more chance of your catching something nasty from somebody’s mouth, nose or hands than there is from their feet. The same mouth that’s panting next to you in the Zumba class. The same hands that are doing modified push-ups on the carpet you’ll be crunching on in an hour. The New York City Health Dept. has very explicit directives for keeping your flu germs to yourself. They involve precautions involving your mouth and hands. Does it surprise you that feet aren’t mentioned at all?

“Well, Buster, you better start wearing shoes,” the lady snarled in no uncertain terms as turned away and walked toward her exercise room.

Okay, I’ll make a deal with you, Ma’am. I’ll wear shoes when you cover your nose and mouth with a mask to protect me from all that nasty bacteria you may be emitting and encase your hands in Latex gloves to contain all those germs you might have picked up from the ATM.

But I refuse to wear flippers at the pool.

This post has been cross-posted on my Sharecare blog.

© Copyright Thom Forbes, 2016