People going barefoot is not something you see often in modern Western society outside of a swimming pool or similar body of water. And what a shame! There are many health benefits to be gained from going barefoot.
April is National Foot Health Awareness Month, so before I get into some of the specific benefits let’s talk a little first about your feet, what they are capable of, and a little bit of their anatomy, because form = function.
Fun fact: 25% of your muscles & bones live below your ankle. (Another fun fact: your foot is a hydrostat. That means it can change its shape without changing it volume- like an elephant’s trunk.) There are 33 joints that make up your foot and your foot has a very similar anatomy to your hand. Now, imagine for a moment what your life would be like if an evil person came along and put your hands in casts from the moment you started crawling around on them and you wore these casts 75% of your day. It wouldn’t be pretty right? Your hands would be more like paddles or fins than hands. You certainly wouldn’t have all the dexterity that you do now. Wearing stiff shoes from the first moments of walking is really no different.
‘Sure Doc, but we don’t walk on our hands like we walk on our feet. Shoes protect our feet from glass, and sharp rocks and things like that.‘
True enough. But again, that is because most of us walk around on altered foot. If we have a shoe to protect our feet, we don’t build up callouses or tougher skin on the soles of our foot. With shoes, the muscles and other tissues of the feet become weaker and lose their ability to respond quickly and reflexively to sensory stimuli from the bottom of the feet. Remember those 33 joints in your foot? In a fully articulating foot, you have the ability to move them independently of each other, allowing you to ‘lift’ one part of the foot off of a sharp object without unweighting or lifting the entire foot.
Imagine that I took your hand and quickly & forcefully pushed the palm of your flattened hand down on a table. Your hand would stay flat. Now imagine we repeated this experiment, but this time I placed a tack, sharp side up, on the table and lined up your hand to land right over top of this. Hopefully, you wouldn’t let me do this to you, but if somehow I did manage to slam your hand down on the tack, you could articulate your hand in such a way that it tented up over the sharp end of the tack so as to lessen and potential injury from the tack. Your feet innately have this exact same capability when it comes to sharp objects on the ground. Hopefully, you use your eyeballs to scan for any potential danger and avoid stepping on them, but in case you miss it, or miscalculate how sharp the object is, reflexes in the foot should engage to protect you from most injuries.
The reflexes become extremely dulled by shoe wearing for most our lives, so at first going barefoot may be a painful experience to you. With time and patience though, your feet will ‘toughen up’ as your reflexes, range of motion, and muscle strength come back.
If it’s going to take some work, time patience and little pain to get your feet ready to go barefoot, why even bother??? I’m glad you asked. Here’s 5 reasons that going barefoot can help improve your health.
- Improved balance. In senior citizens, the greatest health risk is falling, which is directly related to a lack of balance that seems to come with aging. You don’t have to lose your balance just because you are getting older though. We lose our balance because we don’t use it enough. If your feet are articulate enough to go barefoot regularly without pain, then you’ve trained those reflexes in your foot to a very high level, which means you will have much better balance. Better balance = less falls = less likely to break a bone. In fact, I would say that if your are worried about keeping healthy, strong bones as you age, but aren’t regularly working on your balance, you’re missing a huge opportunity to prevent broken bones.
- Better posture. You might not wear ‘high heels’ but even most athletic sneakers have a positive heel. That means your heel is higher than your toes relative to flat, level ground. Structurally, even a few millimeters of height difference pitches your skeleton forward. You don’t fall forward though because your muscles along the back of your body- the calves, hamstrings, gluts and low back muscles- overly tense in order to keep you upright. If you walk around like this all the time, those muscles will eventually physically shorten by decreasing the number of sacromeres- the repeating contractile units that make up the muscles. Once they are shortened, they stay that way, unless you give them enough stimulus to lengthen again. Going barefoot puts you in a ‘zero drop’ or neutral foot position and allows your skeleton to achieve a balanced, “stacked” position over the feet without having to shorten your muscles.
- Less foot/knee/hip/low back pain. As above, if your muscles have started to physically accommodate their length to keep you from falling over, they are probably very tight too. This means they are putting an increased amount of force on the bones to which they are attached and the joints which they cross. For example, the calf muscles attaches to the lower part of the femor (thigh bones) in the back and the hamstrings cross the back of the knee to attach to the lower leg bone, the tibia. If both of these muscles are short and tight, they are going to pull and compress the knee joint. How many people do you know who have “bone on bone” in their knees, or are losing the space (and therefore cartilage) in their knee joint? Do your knees grind, click or pop? Taking supplements to increase the synthesis of cartilage in the knee can be helpful, but if there is no space for that cartilage to grow because the joint is compressed, how effective will that be? Perhaps that real reason clinical trails fail to find a conclusive benefit from taking glucosamine, chondroitin and/or MSM. By walking around on a neutral foot, going barefoot can help correct these imbalances that lead to poor posture and increased compression forces on certain joints. Also, if you have bunions, let me correct a misconception right now. Bunions themselves are not hereditary. The tendency to wear shoes with a narrow toe box that squish the toes together, can be taught or even encouraged by family members, which is why it might seem to ‘run in the family.’ Also, the shape of your foot- how wide or narrow it is, may be under some genetic control. So if everyone in your family has wider-than-average feet, but all insist on cramming them into average width shoes, most people in the family will end up with foot malformations at some point in live.
- Less foot odor/nail fungus. Fungi love dark, moist environments. So do most of the bacteria that lead to foot odor. If you want to clear up these conditions, you don’t need a lot of expensive creams, sprays or powders. You do need to let your feet air out and dry out though. Going barefoot around your house or yard more often can be a great way to do this. (Note: if you have an advanced case of nail fungus where most or all of your nails are thick brittle and yellow, please see a doctor for a medication. Once the fungus is cleared, going barefoot more often can help prevent it from coming back. Especially since some of that fungus is probably now living in your shoes….)
- Earthing. When we walk with our barefeet directly on the earth, there is a measurable exchange of ions. Specifically, we discharge excess positive ions. Holistic health experts believe that a build up of these positive ions in our bodies can support inflammation and have negative health consequences. One clinician did a small experiment and found that just 15 minutes a day of walking barefoot on the ground helped her patients reduce inflammation. If their inflammatory load was already low, it helped them lose weight.
If you’re excited about and ready to start adding some barefoot time to your life- excellent! Stay tuned for next week’s post where I will give you some guidelines for incorporating this in your life safely and without injury! Can’t wait? Check out my favorite book on this topic by Katy Bowman.
Also, feel free to follow me on Instagram (@primaldoc) for some inspiration from my own barefoot adventures!
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