Walking barefoot is something that the majority of us only really enjoy for extended periods of time when we are at home or on a beautiful beach vacation. However, experts have suggested that shunning our shoes more often could help to prevent commonly experienced foot injuries as well as improving posture and balance!
One such expert is Patrick McKeon who is a professor of Health Sciences and Human Performance. Based in New York, McKeon suggests that there are certain muscles in the foot which are not being used as they should be because of the footwear that we all usually wear. He claims that these muscles, which are quite small, play an essential role in how we move and how good our stability is. Mckeon therefore suggests that we could all benefit by going barefoot more often, be that in the home, in the workplace or even outdoors!
None of this is really surprising. After all, shoes are not a natural environment for our feet. Of course in our modern and often urbanised lifestyles it is often necessary to wear shoes for many practical reasons such as warmth and protection against sharp debris and parasites. It is true however that the more a person walks barefoot outside, the less injuries they sustain. This is most likely due to the fact that the skin of human feet is made too soft by being protected by shoes, whereas regular barefoot walking outside makes the skin much more resilient.
Human gait is much more natural without shoes. Wearing any type of footwear changes the way that we walk which can cause many health issues over time, including damage to knees and ankles. Barefoot walking encourages landing on the forefoot and decreases impact on the heel which can travel up through the leg.
It is not only the most famous culprits such as high heels that can cause foot pain or injury, many so called sports or comfortable shoes can be just as much to blame. Bunions and hammer toe are just two unpleasantly common conditions that can be linked to wearing shoes, especially if they are ill-fitting.
Going barefoot has even more health benefits for children as their feet are still developing. Studies have shown that children that do not wear shoes had stronger feet than those that did, and less problems with issues such as malformed toes.
There are other predicaments that people who are often barefoot seldom experience. Athletes foot is a common and unpleasant fungal disease that is particularly prevalent in those who often have moist skin, hence the accurate name! The fungus only develops when feet have not been dried properly and are then put back into shoes. This gives the fungus the perfect environment to thrive. Those that wear open shoes such as sandals or flip flops, or no shoes at all, rarely encounter these problems.
The science behind these claims is based on the idea that we have extrinsic muscles in our legs and feet which are fairly large and also intrinsic muscles in our feet, which are relatively small. When we walk, neural connections are made between these muscles which then loops back to the brain. If we are not using several of the intrinsic muscles because of the type of footwear that we are wearing, then these messages become broken and this is when over-use of certain muscles can occur. Over-use can of course quickly lead to an injury as these muscles are less able to repair themselves at an efficient rate.
As the over-used muscles continue to be damaged, the burden is then passed on to the ligaments, the bones and the tendons. These components of the body will then take responsibility for absorbing the impact of movement and can then also be prone to experiencing injuries.
Many sports are best performed barefoot, notably swimming, martial arts and gymnastics.
A great way to keep our feet healthy and work towards avoiding this problem is to try to spend an increased amount of time barefoot during the day. You can also practice simple exercises to engage the intrinsic muscles, such as by bringing your toes down towards the heel in a squeezing motion. If you already have a foot injury then this easy exercise can also help you on the road to recovery. When it is safe to do so, such as in clean and warm environments, it is also advantageous to exercise barefoot. This can help to really boost the use of the often overlooked muscles and strengthen overall bone health in the feet and legs.
If you do decide to start going barefoot, a gradual conversion is recommended. Feet become used to wearing shoes and are therefore supported in a different way. It is probable that anyone that has worn shoes a lot has a shortening of the Achilles tendon which could cause some leg discomfort if the switch is too sudden. These muscles need to be stretched gradually to get the full benefit of foregoing footwear.