The Best and Worst Footwear for a Healthier, Happier Back 

 December 14, 2021

By  Laura Warf

Did you know that the shoes you wear can make your back feel better or worse?


Getting to the root cause of back pain can take some serious investigation and self awareness skills. At times something as simple as wearing the wrong footwear for our chosen activity can have adverse affects. Perhaps a sedentary life of too much sitting can be the cause of pain, a nagging injury or more serious health condition could also lead to major discomfort.

Regardless of the challenges you are experiencing, there are specialists who can help. By prioritizing your well-being, back health can be greatly improved.

I was recently reminded about the importance of good supportive shoes on one of our evening dog walks. It was a rainy evening so I pulled on my rain gear and rubber boots and headed out the door.

After about 30 minutes of walking, I felt my hips and lower back tightening up and start to feel achy. By the time I got home after an hour of walking, my entire lower body felt tense and sore due to my unsupported footwear. I now opt to use my rubber boots on shorter walks and pull on my well-fitted hiking boots when I know we’ll be on foot for more than a half an hour.

Sometimes the simplest solutions are found by examining our daily lifestyle habits. Consider all your daily activities and the type of footwear you use every time you are on your feet. From healthcare workers to hair stylists who are on their feet all day or construction workers and those who perform manual labor hauling equipment around, the right footwear makes a difference and can either mean having energy to spare at the end of the day or feeling sore and tired.

Whether you're walking for exercise or just to get where you're going, the shoes you wear play an important role in supporting your lower back. Good shoes provide a supportive base that helps the ankles, knees, hips and spine remain in correct alignment.

What to Look for When Choosing Good Footwear:

  • Make sure the area of the shoe that fits the back of your heel is snug, but not overly tight. A good fit prevents over pronation or supination—or too much rolling of the foot to the inside or outside.
  • Shoes, sneakers, and other footwear should feel comfortable and not pinch or irritate any part of your foot even when new. When you try on shoes, spend some time walking around in them and paying attention to how they feel. No matter how good they look, don’t buy shoes that are too tight, too loose, unsupportive, or in any way uncomfortable.
  • Shoes with a slight heel are best. The ideal range is between 1 and 2 inches. Two-inch heels have been shown to alleviate the pressure on your feet while walking. Anything over that will not be kind to your back.
  • Even though we love our flip flops and slippers, avoid prolonged use since most styles do not have any shock absorption or appropriate cushioning in the soles or arch support thereby offering zero protection for your back. Podiatrists say «keep the flip flops for the beach or the pool.»
  • Do wear cushioned sneakers and running shoes which generally offer more arch support and soles designed for shock absorption which means less strain on your back.
  • If you are a woman who likes style over function, choose wedge soled shoes instead of high heeled stilettos. Shoes that are too flat are not better for backs either, so use ballet flats in moderation too since they offer minimal support. The wedge sole will offer more balance and steadiness than the high stiletto or the ballet flat. Opt for sandals with toe room and support in the sole. Cork soles like those found in Birkenstock’s are popular choices.
  • Rocker soles can be a good option for some people. Go gradually with the time of wear to let your body get accustomed to them. The curved soles encourage active posture since their design increases natural movement which stimulates the back muscles without the hard heel strike of regular soled shoes.
  • What about the vibram five-finger shoes? They fall into the minimalist shoe category and offer a design that allows barefoot freedom and sensitivity. Their concept promotes to the committed athlete where the person relies on the strength of their feet and legs, rather than the cushioning and support of a shoe.

If you are in the prevention stage of back pain or like the idea of low back conditioning while you go about your daily activities, the rocker soles or five-finger shoes are good options when used moderately. Otherwise orthopedic shoes with supportive soles and enough space for the foot to move naturally are best for days where you will be on your feet for longer periods of time. 

See a specialist 

We love to spend time outdoors hiking and walking. The last time my husband and I went to purchase a new pair of running shoes, we went to a specialty sports store to get the best fit for our personal needs. Their trained staff took the time to measure the length and width of our feet and made recommendations of a few styles based on our lifestyle and activity level.

I have wide, flat feet with moderate bunions that used to be really painful until I understood the importance of a good shoe and was ready to make a change in my habits. The days of wearing high-heeled, pointy shoes are gone! And many popular athletic shoes don’t work for my feet. I love sharing what I discover... my all time favorite hiking shoe and winter boot are the Oboz brand. They have a rigid, sturdy sole, and wide forefront keeping my feet supported along with feeling cozy and dry. Now my friends and family are loving them too!

If you have specific needs, seek our a podiatrist or specialist who is trained in biomechanics and who can identify postural imbalances or gait abnormalities.

When it comes the the « best shoe », there is no one size fits all. Just like we use different jackets for varying weather conditions, we can choose our footwear based on our activity level, movement needs and the duration of time you’ll be on your feet. If you feel numbness, pain, or discomfort in your feet, ankles, knees and back, then consider changing your footwear or alternating between different types of shoes throughout your day: an appropriate pair for work, a well-fitted pair for your fitness activities and another comfortable yet supportive pair when lounging at home. And if you still like the sexy uncomfortable ones that leave you walking funny when you remove them, limit the time you actually have them on your feet. Wear your running shoes to and from your event to give your feet and back a break. You’ll be healthier and happier in the long run!

Laura Warf

Laura Warf is the founder of the School of Happiness, an online Holistic Wellness Center. Laura's methods are based on tools from ancient teachings to today’s current research that will inspire others to take charge of their complete well-being by following 8 essential elements to health and happiness. She is a passionate wellness educator and mind-body specialist offering services in yoga, meditation, energetic balancing, and fitness conditioning. Visit www.LauraWarf.com & www.SchoolofHappiness.ca

Laura Warf

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