Why Walking Barefoot is Healthy

 

If you’ve ever met me in real life, you’d probably notice a few things about me. The first would be my extremely good looks and piercing blue eyes. The second would be my quick wit and puns. The third would be my shoes.

People always comment on my shoes. Generally, it’s along the lines of “where’d you get those?” which translates to mean, “Your shoes-are-so-weird-but-I don’t-think-that’s-socially-acceptable-to-say”. Seriously; I was a tour guide and on about 25% of my tours, people asked about my shoes. How were my feet more interesting than cryoconite on a glacier!?  What makes my shoes so special?

I wear minimalist shoes.

I find it strange that minimalist shoes are considered odd and experimental, when people went barefoot or with minimal foot coverings for thousands of years. Shouldn’t these new-fangled shoes be the ones everyone is skeptical of instead of the traditional ones?

I started going barefoot or in minimalist shoes purely for comfort and ease. Most people think that shoes protect our feet. If you think about the imprint of most shoes, it’s pretty oval. The toe of the shoes is almost the same size as the heel. But our feet aren’t designed like this. Our toes are designed to splay and spread the weight of our body out. Shoes even cramp the length of our toes and can make stunt their growth, which is called “hammer toe”. Most shoes also rub in specific spots which cause blisters or corns. If shoes are meant to protect our feet, they’re doing a very poor job.


I liked how comfortable minimalist shoes were, but was worried that if I went for a run, I would risk an injury. I’d heard all about fractured heels, runner’s knee and shin splints. Traditional wisdom says that you need specific runners with a soft feel to prevent stress injuries. I started researching minimalist footwear because I was skeptical that minimalist shoes could give the same benefits as regular shoes.

It makes sense that injury comes from impact. Think about if someone kicked you, that impact would cause injury. Even if they had a shoe on, it would probably hurt you and them. And if it would hurt to be kicked with a shoe on it means the shoes aren’t actually absorbing much impact. Your feet are getting that same force with each step.

Because there’s a nice cushy heel on the shoe, it’s thicker and naturally going to hit the ground first. Your momentum is going forward, but your leg is hitting the ground in front of you, so you are creating a mini-break which creates impact. When you increase the heel thickness to “absorb shock” it actually increases the shock because it alters the physics of walking.

To absorb shock, you need to increase the stopping distance or time. But we don’t need shoes for that; our feet have perfect built-in shock absorbers. The arch of your foot is a muscle that stretches to absorb impact with each step. Because that muscle is naturally curved, it is designed to stretch and absorb shock, just like a bridge would. So when you are walking and land on your mid-foot or toes, the arch stretches out and absorbs the shock. But when you land on the heel it just sends that impact up your body. When you have shoes, even with the perfect gait, it traps your feet so the arch doesn’t have much movement. We don’t need special shoes for running, we just need to let our bodies work.



Once I learned about the mechanics of walking, I became a staunch supporter of barefoot lifestyle. It just made sense. When our bodies and natural gait were designed to absorb shock and could do it more effectively than shoes could, I saw no reason to wear shoes.

Shoes not only cramp feet and send shock waves up the body; they also increase stress in our whole body. When the heel is lifted off the ground, body’s natural balance and alignment is ruined. Lifting the heel tips the body forwards, which puts lots of stress on the knees. It also changes the angle of the hips which results in hip tightness and a pelvic tilt. Then to maintain balance, the back also has to arch to help bring the center of gravity back. And because the back is arched, the neck has to deform to keep the head level. Literally everything from the ground up changes.

Granted, the issues will not be as pronounced in normal shoes as in people who wear 4-inch stiletto heels (women who regularly wear heels are famous for knee issues) but there is still an impact. Most shoes have between a 30mm and 100mm heel, which when worn constantly really impacts the body.


When people have knee, back or foot issues, they’ll often get custom orthotics. And what is an orthotic? It’s basically a fancy insole. But it just increases the amount of heel on a shoe. So, it further changes the body’s natural alignment and heightens the root cause of the pain. Instead of adding special soles, we just need to remove them all together.

Not only do shoes increase stress and impact on the body, they also make the body wok harder, which means being more physically tired. Your feet are home to tons of muscles, ligaments and bones. But when you put shoes on, it reduces the flexibility and makes just a few select muscles do all the work. Think about it this way, if you only used a few muscles to do every activity, the muscles would get overused, worn out and injured because of lack of recovery. The rest of your muscles would lie dormant and underdeveloped. Stressing specific muscles while other muscles lie weak is not a healthy way to live. But in bare feet, even the smallest muscles in the foot are working, so it takes some of the load and enables the other muscles to rest a bit. It’s a very balanced way to live.

After thousands of years of people going in bare feet or thin sandals, I’m not sure what started the modern belief that we need shoes. People say we need shoes to protect our feet. They may protect us from a few scratches, but compress our toes and change the bone structure. Shoes are also designed to prevent injury because of their thick cushioned heels. But they just change the mechanics of movement and increase impact. The heels also compromise our body’s natural alignments, which often causes problems in our knees, hips, back or neck. Shoes prohibit the intricate movements of the feet in walking, which weakens many muscles, while overworking others. I think it’s time we stepped out of our own way and allowed our bodies to work the way they were designed to, without shoes.

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