If you've come for a reflexology treatment in the last few months you may have noticed that I’ve been barefoot. I try to go footwear-free as much as I can these days – always at home/in the garden/at the beach, sometimes in the woods, and occasionally in the street. Although we've been protecting the feet when necessary with footwear since prehistoric times, there’s an ever-growing movement to spend more time barefoot when possible, and less time in modern footwear. Going shoe-free honestly makes me feel calmer and more relaxed. I’m certainly not the only barefoot fan – and it has so many benefits!
Barefoot for strong feet
Our feet are literally the foundation of our bodies, and we often overlook how important they are to our overall strength, agility and posture. We need to keep our feet strong and well just to make sure our body can do the everyday basics, nevermind if we push ourself with more challenging exercise. Going barefoot enables our feet to be fully flexible and allows ligaments, tendons and muscles to splay out and recoil, to carry our weight and enable us to be flexible. When we wear shoes, insoles or orthotics – which are essentially casts for the feet – we don’t use these various essential components of our feet and they can get weak. When our feet are weak we’re potentially more susceptible to things like plantar fasciitis, foot sensitivity and neuromas. It's a case of use it or lose it! Since walking barefoot more, one of my (silly-shoes-induced) bunions has definitely looked less pronounced.
Barefoot for healthier feet
When our feet are trapped in socks or shoes, the moisture excreted by thousands of sweat glands, added to lots of dead skins cells, creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Properly aired feet don't have that cheesy feet smell! By being naturally aired, barefeet don’t retain moisture and won’t promote fungal infections like athlete’s foot. When toenails are uncovered and have no pressure on them, nails grow faster, straighter and stronger. Going barefoot also helps prevent calluses developing because of pressure and rubbing points caused by footwear.
Barefoot for your body
From a lifetime spent in modern footwear, including trainers, we often get forced into bad habits, such as sticking our bum and tummy out, and straining our hamstrings, back and shoulders. When we kick our shoes off, we become more body aware as the thousands of nerve endings on the bottom of our feet can tell us when our posture is out, reducing strain on our bodies, reawakening muscles and resetting our balance system. Many people, including doctors and sports people, report that long-standing issues with their backs have been improved from walking barefoot more. When our feet are contained in shoes our movement can be clumsier and with the most common cause of death from injuries for people over 60 being a fall, that’s certainly something to think about.
Modern shoes are rubbish…
...but, hey, I'm in no position to lecture here. It's estimated that 80% of us wear shoes that are too small, and in my youth I always used to buy shoes that were a bit too small and then spend agonising hours breaking them in (what a weird concept that was!). I proudly wore stilettos at 14 years old. In my twenties I ran for London buses in major heels. I have a dedicated shoe storage cupboard at home for the collection I've built up over the years! I’m definitely not suggesting that you should go shoe-free every day, and why not wear a cracking pair of high-fashion shoes on a night out? However, I'm now a real believer that our everyday footwear should be less clunky, foot shaped (narrower at the bottom and wider at the toes), and not overly-cushioned. The photo below highlights the difference in the feet of a barefooter compared to someone who's been in shoes all their life. If you’re interested in embracing the more flexible, foot-shaped, minimal shoe, there are brands out there – such as Vibram, Lenka, Wilding, Kigo and Vivobarefoot – offering all kinds of different styles.
Orthotics may not always be the answer
I’m a passionate reflexologist but I’m not a chiropodist/podiatrist/physio, so I can’t claim to know everything about the mechanics of the human foot. However, an area that I'm really interested in is the orthotics vs barefoot debate. There seems to be a recognition that shoe insoles and orthotics are over-prescribed. Some doctors and physios are now also saying it’s not possible for any orthotic to ‘correct’ a foot problem as an orthotic is always going to affect body balance and gait stability.
The argument against the insoles/orthotics that we wear in a desire to cushion our feet, support our arches or reduce foot pain is that they actually help to create some of the foot problems in the first place. Instead of helping, insoles and orthotics can actually encourage a loss in mobility and strength because they restrict the feet. When restricted, all the tiny little bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles in our feet can’t work, flex and grow strong – again, use it or lose it! Many adults end up with lazy arches, sensitive feet and weak ankles as a result of relying on orthotics, often from a ayoung age, and are then prescirbed orthotics to remedy the problem – a vicious circle!
Kids’ feet need to move!
When my daughter was little, I couldn't wait to get her into her first pair of shoes. Second time round, when I had my son, instinct told to me to back off and he was definitely a barefoot and socks kinda child. These days I encourage my kids to go barefoot as much as possible.
The bones in our feet don’t harden until we’re late into our teens and kids’ feet need lots of room to grow strong and be flexible, rather than be restricted. Developing the senses and the foot-brain connection is equally important and going barefoot can help here too. A study by the University of Bournemouth found that keeping shoes off childrens’ feet in the classroom helped them concentrate more, behave better and perform better academically. That's something to take up with your child's school, especially if they favour traditional stiff, narrow and rigid shoes.
It’s also interesting that much of the research into the benefits of orthotic shoes and shoes with arch support is only done for adults rather than children. If you're interested in finding out more on this, Vivobarefoot have an interesting section on foot health for kids where they argue against the use of stiff footwear, insoles and orthotics for children: Barefoot Kids: Brainy, Healthy, Strong.
It’s just like reflexology
Just like reflexology, walking barefoot stimulates the nerve endings on the bottom of the feet. This promotes all kind of goodness, including an increase in blood flow, decrease in blood pressure, calming the body down, and helping the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system kick in, reducing stress and inflammation in the body.
Barefoot keeps you grounded
We’ve lost much of our connection with the earth due to the way we live now. The earth carries a negative charge, and humans have a positive charge due to all the electromagnetic waves we come in contact with on a daily basis. Going barefoot promotes grounding, also known as 'earthing', as it allows our body to absorb negative electrons through the earth, which helps to stabilise our internal bioelectrical environment and protect our body from electromagnetic fields (EMFs) which are potentially disturbing to our health. Walking on grass, soil, sand – basically anything natural – is best.
Tips for walking barefoot
If you're inspired to try a bit more barefoot living, take it steady to start with. Don’t go out on a 10 mile run in the woods on your first barefoot adventure! Speak to your GP or podiatrist first if you have an injury. And make sure any infection has cleared before walking barefoot in communal spaces.
Relax and keep your movements fluid. Keep your knees soft when contacting the ground. Use your heel to make the first impact with the floor, finishing off with the toes. Spread the majority of your weight when your foot is flat.
If you enjoy going barefoot and want to do more, build up to it gradually. Going barefoot at home is an easy way to start but do take care on slippery surfaces (wearing breathable non-slip socks can help get you going if you're unsteady on your feet). If you're getting outside, take care to look out for dog poo, sharp stones and other objects which might cause pain. I've found that they're actually easier to avoid than when I'm wearing shoes as I'm more focused on what I'm doing!
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