Tim Brennon invented the barefoot shoe about 20 years ago, and is the inventive brilliance behind Vivobarefoot, perhaps the best-known barefoot shoe company in the world. As Tim tells the story, he had a moment of enlightenment when he noticed that he walked well when barefoot, but shoes made it impossible to walk well. He suddenly imagined a shoe that would be just a “second skin”, allowing completely natural interaction with the ground. It took a few years and many prototypes, but in that instant, barefoot shoes were born.
But barefoot shoes might never have happened: Tim was originally interested in designing a better chair. He was keenly aware that sitting still was bad for people because conventional chairs encouraged poor posture and sitting inertly all day almost certainly undermined health. Fortunately, Tim was also a keen entrepreneur, and recognized that, as he tells it: “… it would be a lot easier to sell shoes than chairs”. And so barefoot shoes and barefoot running had their champion.
The genius of barefoot shoes is Tim’s fundamental insight that simpler is better. Making a shoe more “comfortable” and more “supportive” undermine the foot’s intrinsically brilliant mechanics, honed over millions of years of evolution. Every “innovation” in shoes that takes us further from our foot’s natural environment makes walking more difficult. Conventional shoes invite a host of foot problems because when our feet are padded, they cannot feel the world to inform our walking and thus protect themselves. So, when wearing shoes our feet are subjected to repeated small injuries that over time can lead to significant pathology: bunions, plantar fasciitis, fallen arches, shortening of the Achilles’ tendon, as well as more frequent athletic injuries.
Many years later, with the success of barefoot shoes assured, Tim finally had the leisure to circle back to the problems caused by chairs. Which is how we happened to meet Tim and his dad, Rick. They found us on LinkedIn, and we set up a Zoom session.
As we Zoomed, a wealth of parallels between Tim’s devotion to better walking and our obsession with better sitting emerged. Tim and his dad worked on the barefoot shoe as a team, just as my son, Lex and I have labored over our active chairs together. Tim’s shoes borrowed generously from the ideas of the Alexander Technique, while Lex and my insights about sitting owe much to the Feldenkrais community, and it happens that Alexander and Feldenkrais knew each other. Intriguingly, both Tim and his dad had been involved with trying to find better sitting solutions for kids in schools, and Lex and I had invented the ButtOn Chair for just this purpose. It also turned out that I’d been wearing Tim’s barefoot shoes for years, and Tim and his dad wanted to immediately get hold of our active chairs. It was an exhilarating conversation, culminating with Richard’s definitive observation: “The ergonomists have got it all wrong!”.
We appreciate Tim’s enthusiasm and support of helping us spread the word on active sitting; he understands the potential of active sitting to help people. This is what he had to say about my upcoming book, Sit Better:
Turner Osler’s Sit Better is a must-read. He describes clearly the evolution of chairs and their devastating impacts on our health, and looks towards a possible future where furniture can help us overcome back pain. This is a much-needed book that sets the record straight on ergonomics.
– Tim Brennan, founding inventor of Vivobarefoot shoes
But really, none of this is surprising. After all, our chairs and barefoot shoes embody the same insight: by getting rid of the extraneous we allow the body to function as intended. So, by removing all the padding and “supports”, barefoot shoes and our minimalist chairs each allow the human body to express its naturally perfect posture and function. Once again, less is more, more or less.