It’s a wonderful feeling at the end of the day to kick off those shoes and allow the feet to relax and breathe. And when the weather is nice, it feels good to walk barefoot across the lawn and feel the warm earth and grass beneath our feet. But walking barefoot may also have some surprising health benefits and risks.
Foot disorders are extremely common and are the cause of much pain and disability, and consequent loss of mobility and independence in the elderly. With the contraptions we shove our feet into, it’s no wonder that shoes are the major cause of flatfoot and fallen arches, bunions, athlete’s foot and toenail fungus, hammer toe, knee arthritis, blisters, corns and calluses. American podiatrists visiting countries where walking barefoot is the norm, have reported a lower incidence of foot problems in the general population.
In 1987, Robbins and Hanna conducted research by instructing habitual shod runners/walkers to increase barefoot weight-bearing activity as much as possible over a 4 month period. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that multiple positive changes in their feet led to stronger muscles and bones and more flexibility in the barefoot runners/walkers.
Dr. Phil Hoffman states, “Foot gear is the greatest enemy of the human foot.” Because shoes provide support and limit movement in the feet and ankles, they can actually weaken the structure of the foot, similar to the way a cast on an arm will weaken the arm over time. Both bone and muscle weakens with a lack of use and resistance, in turn, leaving the joints and tendons in the foot with less support and protection. Deterioration in the strength and mobility of the feet can also impact the legs, hips, pelvis, and spine.
Some claim that improperly fitting shoes are to blame for most foot problems but William Rossi, leading podiatrist and shoe-industry consultant says, “There’s no such thing as a sensible shoe.” All shoes impact the foot in one way or another.
Amy Matthews, a movement analyst who teaches anatomy and kinesiology to yoga instructors, explains that shoes can make the feet passive and unconscious because they do all the work for us. Passive feet may be to blame for aches and pains felt in the knees, back, and even the neck. Since the feet are the foundation of the entire body, stronger feet aid in better posture.
Marlene Reid, DPM, a podiatric surgeon believes that toddlers learning to walk benefit from walking without shoes. “It’s how they learn to coordinate the muscles from their legs to their toes to balance upright…”
On the other hand some doctors worry that going barefoot raises the risk of picking up bacteria, hookworms which embed in the soles of the feet, fungal infections and viruses, as well as cuts and punctures that can lead to infection or tetanus. However, feet bound up in shoes for long periods of time perspire and also provide a damp environment for bacteria and fungus to grow. Perhaps the answer is going barefoot as much as possible in safe environments. Anyone remember the old ’60s song by Robert Parker called “Barefootin”?
Runbare.com offers a quick exercise to try at home. It goes like this:
Run down the sidewalk with shoes on for 50 feet, then repeat without shoes. Notice that, as you feel the ground, you learn to walk lighter and strike with the balls of the foot rather than with the heels. Running barefoot decreases by twelve times, the impact on muscles and joints jolting your system with each step.