The Fitness of The Flip-Flop Sandals

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Convenient and sometimes comfortable, flip-flops are ubiquitous during the summer months. The Fitness of The Flip-Flop Sandals

When our boys were young, my day-in, day-out choice of footwear was athletic shoes. After all, I never knew when I would need to chase one down or jet off with one (or all three!) to the ER.

Now that I am beyond that phase (knock wood!), during the warm months, I almost always opt for flip-flops of one kind or another.

Obviously, they keep your feet cool and are easy to slip on and off, especially when going through security at an airport, but beyond that, do they have any benefits or are they actually bad for your feet?

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Flip-flop options abound

One of the fun things about flip-flops is that they are available in a wide range of styles and price points.

Some are nothing more than a base of foam rubber with a rubber or plastic Y-shaped strap for the thong part. Others are crafted from leather and suede with footbeds that are made to support and cushion your feet.

I think I spent an entire summer in a pair that cost about $1.95 from Old Navy. Sometimes though the low cost of the flip-flop is off-set by the cost to your feet.

In general…good or bad?

Although there isn’t a plethora of research into the impact of wearing flip-flops long-term, there does exist a few studies that looked at changes in stride among barefoot walking, wearing flip-flops and wearing athletic shoes.

As you might expect, walking in flip-flops versus bare feet versus athletic shoes does elicit differences in motion and mechanics.

Studies have shown that wearing flip-flops obviously offer protection and shock absorption as compared to walking barefooted. And that there is increased pressure on the plantar area of the foot as compared to walking in athletic shoes.

Studies also have shown that stride length is shorter, ankle angle is larger and stance time is shorter when wearing flip-flops versus sneakers. Researchers hypothesize that these changes in gait may cause discomfort in the lower leg and foot while wearing flip-flops.

However, researchers in a 2016 study concluded that although there were some changes to gait—increased knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion during the swing period of the stride—wearers adapted to these changes well. The study, “Effect of flip-flops on lower limb kinematics during walking: a cross-sectional study using three-dimensional gait analysis,” was published in the May 2016 Irish Journal of Medical Science.

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In the trenches: what do doctors say?

Keep in mind that these scientific studies focused on flip-flop wearers for only a short period of time. Podiatrists and orthopedists are more likely to see the good and the bad in flip-flop wear on a daily basis in their practices.

According to medical professionals, those who make flip-flops their go-to shoes could be lining themselves up for foot and ankle problems or could exacerbate pre-existing issues like plantar fasciitis, tendinitis or arthritis.

Additional injuries can include stress fractures, increased pressure on the balls of the feet, heel pain and tendon inflammation, for example.

Flip-flops can be problematic for those with flat feet or high arches as the typical flip-flop doesn’t offer enough support for those conditions. Those who are overweight or lead sedentary lifestyles may find that flip-flops are too difficult to walk in for extended periods.

The lack of support is the biggest issue with flip-flops. Originally designed for walks to and from the beach, flip-flops can now be seen everywhere. Fashion-sense aside, there are some activities—hiking, for example—for which flip-flops actually would be a dangerous choice.

The other issue is the reliance on flip-flops to wear all day, every day.  Most regular, fashion-forward flip-flops are not made for extended wear. And people often wear them beyond their normal life spans.

But, for those who are fit and uninjured, wearing flip-flops for a limited amount of time can actually strengthen your arches to a certain extent.

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The safety issue

Besides the changes to your gait, flip-flops can make you more vulnerable to other types of injuries such as those from slips and falls, stubbed and/or broken toes, sores, blisters and nail, and foot fungus.

Think twice about wearing flip-flops during the following activities:

  • Any time you might need to break into a run—parenting, walking the dog, under the threat of inclement weather, for example.
  • Driving—flip-flops can become caught under the car’s pedals making for dangerous driving conditions.
  • Crowded public transportation—the likelihood of having your foot stepped on is higher when you are crammed in a subway car or transit bus.
  • Moving or laundry day—flip-flops are not great for frequent trips up and downstairs, particularly if you have your hands full.
  • Kitchen duty—the potential for dropping sharp or heavy objects (think cast iron skillet) is great in the kitchen, especially if you are busy and multi-tasking.
  • Working in the yard/garden—sharp tools and motorized equipment are dangerous for exposed feet as are insect bites such as bee and wasp stings.
  • Standing in line—flip-flops might not be the best option if you know you are going to spend a great deal of time waiting in line with no option to sit.
  • If you can’t curb the urge

If you want to wear flip-flops, medical professionals urge you to opt for a more supportive pair, rather than just the foam bottom with the rubber Y-shaped thong.

They may not be quite as fashionable but look for ones with a footbed contoured to match the anatomy of a foot. They should have firm but flexible soles and some type of arch support and possibly a bump under the toes to facilitate gripping.

Look for sturdy thong material and make sure it is constructed with no rough edges so as not to cause friction or blisters.

Flip-flops with straps that hit the foot closer to the ankle help them stay on more securely, which means that your toes don’t have to grip as much to keep them on.

Many of these types of flip-flops are at the higher end of the price range. Brands like FitFlop, Birkenstock, OluKai, and Vionic, for example, offer the flip-flop style with sturdier construction. If you like to wear flip-flops, the extra cost just might be worth it.

Those $2 ones you bought at the grocery store can be put to use on the beach or in the gym shower, where they belong.