David A. Rosenbaum Ph.D.

Perception and Performance

Your Clothes Have Extended Your Life

Soft-sole shoes and other garments may have done much to extend life expectancy.

Posted Oct 03, 2017

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Ever since I started blogging for Psychology Today, I have used this space to raise new questions or possibilities for my fellow psychologists and, no less, for psychologists-to-be. I have speculated about such things as why our own poops may not smell, why very gentle touch may provide a new means of rehabilitating stroke victims, and why we might be able to functionally extend our lives by deliberately choosing highly interesting activities that take a long time recall.

I want to introduce another new possibility here, but as prelude, I want to say that on the day I am writing this (October 3, 2017) I am turning 65. That's an old age by traditional standards, but by today's standards, at least in the part of the world I am privileged to inhabit, the age of 65 is not so old. Rather, it is "young old" -- not so old as to be decrepit, but young enough in form and function to let one mingle with folks who are much younger. University students are the main group who help keep me young in this sense, not to mention my daughters, their spouses, and their children, plus, of course, my wife, who, though she is is 4 years older than I, keeps me hopping.

Why share these personal remarks? Turning 65, I wonder how I managed to survive this long. Certainly, it was being lucky about my genes, eating well, sleeping well, and so on. But I think there is another reason, a reason that is not generally thought of when one reaches age-related milestones. That other reason is, of all things, my shoes.

Think about your grandparents when they were 65 or so. In my case, my grandfather always wore a suit and tie and black leather shoes and thin leather soles. My grandmother always wore a heavy dress and thick, rigid "clod hoppers." Her shoes were dowdy and looked like they were designed to be as uncomfortable as possible.

The clothes my grandparents wore befitted their station in New York City, where they ran a small business. Ironically, however, they were imprisoned by their clothes. What they could never do was go for long walks. Their shoes, in particular, tied them down. I know this because I used to wear leather shoes myself. Sneakers had been around for a while, but they were worn for athletic events only. Hence their name: gym shoes or tennis shoes. Over time it became acceptable to wear sneakers outside the gym. Then "track shoes" came along, as did "walking shoes." The latter are soft-sole shoes, often in black leather or some similar-looking material. Walking shoes eschew any pretense of being for jogging. You wear them just to be able to walk and walk and walk.

I honestly think my soft-sole walking shoes played a major role in my reaching the age of 65. With my walking shoes, I can, and typically do, walk about 10,000 steps a day, as confirmed on the activity monitor on my iPhone. Having the activity monitor is helpful, but if my feet ached after walking once around the block, the number of steps would remain low. The pain from my arches would overwhelm whatever sense of guilt or shame I might feel if I saw a paltry number on my iPhone.

Shoes may be more important than we have understood, and likewise for other aspects of our wardrobes, like the light textiles we wear nowadays that keep out rain and cold. Trapesing through the cold while wearing a ponderous pelt weighs you down. Gliding along in a synthetic fabric is much easier.

It is tempting in psychology to explains things in terms of the mind. Our mental states do matter, but so do our environments, as everyone in the field of environmental psychology knows. An aspect of our environment may have more to do with our health than most of us have acknowledged. That aspect is the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet. "Clothes make the man (and woman)," as the old saying goes. A hypothesis for future research is that clothes conducive to active lifestyles have made our lives more active and also longer.