Going barefoot – and returning to the minimalist ways of our caveman predecessors – is growing rapidly in popularity. For those seeking to reconnect with mother earth, return a natural flow to their stride or improve general health, a barefoot lifestyle could be an easily accessible solution. So, let’s take a look at the anatomy of going barefoot, the plight of the humble shoe and modern solutions to this age-old practice. Let’s jump right in, get our feet wet and see life from a barefoot perspective.
The bare truth
Let’s begin by looking at this from a purely mechanical perspective. You’d be forgiven for showing initial skepticism as to how impactful losing the shoes can be. After all, how much of a difference can it make to simply remove a few thin layers of nylon and rubber from our soles? As it happens, quite a big difference.
Having our feet in direct contact with the earth begins to reawaken dormant biofeedback mechanism. Stagnant nerves and muscles reengage and strengthen. The vestibular system – responsible for our ability to balance – begins to fire on all pistons. These new experiences cause synapses in the brain to rewire. Like honing an old skill, we rediscover our innate ability to balance – and balance well. For the younger among us, this is like fine-tuning the system. For the elderly, this could provide the edge that prevents a bad fall. It turns out the shoe is like a filter that prevents a tremendous amount of information from reaching the body.
By reengaging stale muscles we return a certain homeostasis to the legs. The muscles of the legs begin to support one another. Circulation improves to nourish the strengthened and toned muscles. You may find yourself warmer and a little more winter-hardy.
Perhaps surprisingly, the advantages are not just confined to the legs. For many of us, long periods of sitting have slowly shortened our hip flexors (as we’ll find out later, wearing shoes can have a similar effect). The result? Curvature in the lower back that propagates through the neck, shoulders and hips to create abominable posture. Like a giant Jenga set about to collapse, gravity twists the body further, placing strain on our spine, joints and muscles. Walking barefoot however can assist in reversing this process. Lengthening and engaging the leg muscles works to open the hip flexors and restore balance.
A lesser-known (but well researched) upside to canning the shoes is a reduction in inflammation throughout the body. The fascinating process through which this occurs is called grounding (or earthing). While some of us may be familiar with grounding in an electrical context, we rarely liken ourselves to a kitchen appliance. Nonetheless, the principle is much the same. By having our feet in direct contact with the earth we promote the draining of positive ions from the body and back into the earth. While positive ions are critical for general health and immunity, maintaining a large stockpile can lead to inflammation and pain. By unleashing our feet we can take a small step toward taming this modern monster.
Some may also relate to the spiritual sense of grounding. Having our feet interact directly with mother earth can create a tangible sense of wellbeing. Establishing this connection can work to reduce stress and anxiety – a well-documented enemy of disease. On a similar note, those familiar with reflexology will know that specific application of pressure to the feet can have many medicinal benefits. Treatment of headaches, stress and cancer are just a few. Is it possible we’ve experienced the reverse effects by walking all wrong?
The shoe – a sad history
In various forms, shoes have been around for eons. Cave drawings depict early humans sporting elementary shoes fashioned from skins and furs. In all likelihood, these prototypes were intended to provide basic protection from scrapes, unseen objects and insects or low-lying animals. In fact, there’s 5,000-year-old evidence of skins packed with straw to provide insulation from the cold. And, while no Nike-Airs, it’s likely these designs demonstrated shock-absorbing properties too.
Modern shoe designs were well developed by the Baroque period. We begin to see a combination of practicality and aesthetics in shoe design. The shoe heel is a great example of a design feature that assisted in avoiding street debris while also adding valuable inches to one’s height.
Unfortunately this ‘progress’ would turn into a nightmare for future generations of feet. As shoe designs became increasingly aesthetic-driven, they simultaneously lost features that provide important anatomic support. But, what exactly makes these designs so destructive to our health? Let’s take a closer look at a few common features found in today’s shoes.
Toe spring: If you were to pick up a shoe and bend it, it’ll usually bend half way down the sole. You don’t have to be a doctor to note that the foot doesn’t bend naturally at this point. To counter this unnatural bend, designers usually incorporate a toe spring – the slight upturn near the shoe toe that helps you ‘roll’ between steps. Now, toes don’t point up, and certainly don’t roll. Instead – as you’ll find when you stroll on the beach – the toes naturally prefer to grip the ground, bend and push you into your next step.
High heels: Even moderate heels are enough to cause shortening of tendons in the legs and increased loads on the knees (causing posture problems as discussed earlier). For women who frequently wear high heels, it’s common to hear that they find it difficult to return to flats. Incredibly, by wearing shoes we deepen our need to wear shoes.
Cushioning: While difficult to swallow, studies have shown that cushioning in athletic shoes can actually promote injury. The reasons are twofold. First, excessive padding prevents the body’s natural biofeedback system from kicking in. This system should automatically prepare joints for an increased load. Instead they are left vulnerable. Second, padding can actually increase the load on the foot. While barefoot activity tends to spread impact forces along the outer rim and front of the foot, padded shoes encourage a heel-first impact. It is believed that this focused impact could contribute to injuries in the knees and hips.
Let’s be honest. In most urban interactions it just isn’t practical or socially acceptable to be barefoot. For those looking to integrate a barefoot lifestyle however, several modern options may appeal. When it comes to foot-friendly shoes, there are three main varieties:
Barefoot running shoes: The closest thing to true barefoot running. They fit like a glove and have very little cushioning in the heel or surrounding shoe surface. As such, they are amazingly lightweight but provide minimal protection when it comes to hazards – the price we pay. Most importantly, these shoes usually feature a ‘zero-drop’ from heel to toe. While conventional designs often raise heels 10mm or more, the zero drop will help prevent the heel-first impact we discussed above.
Minimalist running shoes: A great (and safe) way to ease into the barefoot running thing. While lightweight, they feature a little more cushioning, a slight heel-rise and minimal arch support. All of this means they still encourage a more natural stride, but not quite to the extent of the barefoot versions. They also tend to look more like conventional running shoes.
Lifestyle barefoot shoes: This emerging market caters to those wanting the benefits of being barefoot between bouts of activity. Brands such as Vivobarefoot are offering designs that are healthy for the feet and easy on the eye. Admittedly, most of these designs seem targeted at the casual street-wearer, but there are a few that may pass as office-worthy.
Of course, the best way to develop a barefoot lifestyle is to… actually get barefoot. Finding regular time for a beach or nature walk is certainly a step in the right direction. Many will find this is plenty to begin experiencing the benefits. A quick word of warning here though. To prevent pain and injury, it’s highly advisable to transition slowly into full-fledged barefoot operations – especially running. The transition can be particularly difficult for folks with low arches. Rest assured that as unused muscles strengthen, you’ll develop a more natural gait as time progresses.