The Benefits of Being Barefoot

Photo from: showing Left: a foot in its natural shape compared to the shape of a Barefoot show and Right: the foot deformities caused by a modern day running shoe.
Photo from: showing Left: a foot in its natural shape compared to the shape of a Barefoot show and Right: the foot deformities caused by a modern day running shoe.

Barefoot, or minimalistic shoes, is a trend growing in popularity as people embrace the health and wellbeing benefits of feeling the ground beneath their feet. The long term effect of barefoot living is still being researched but the short term benefits are compelling many people to give it ago.

The History of the Running Shoe

So if minimalistic shoes are the way forward why are traditional running shoes the way they are? This all started in the running boom of the 1960’s when people all over the world, inspired by the Olympic achievements, laced up their shoes and started to learn to jog. In 1964 Bill Bowerman, coach to countless highly accomplished athletes, cofounded Nike shoes. His main focus was on creating a lightweight shoe that was ideal for performance athletes. As more and more ‘everyday people’ started to want to learn how to run they approached Bowerman to ask for help, the running shoes on the market were thin, un-cushioned and most notably flat causing problems for people’s Achilles tendon and calves. Now this isn’t because flat shoes are bad for our feet but since the late 1800’s people had adapted to the heel drop of a dress shoe and were now unaccustomed to the thin sole and minimal support of Bowerman’s running shoe. To accommodate this a 12mm heel lift was added to Nike’s early shoes. In a time when fitness was not fashionable Nike had to conform to the styles of the times. As time went on shoes became narrower, with thicker cushioning, higher arch support still combined with an average of 10mm heel lift, causing the relaxation, softening and deactivation of many muscles in the foot and consequently people’s feet became weaker, knee pain and osteoarthritis doubled and people became more prone to injury.

Photo from: showing your foot in barefoot shoes (left) compared to traditional running shoes (right)
Photo from: Photo from: showing your foot in barefoot shoes (left) compared to traditional running shoes (right)

To combat this shoe companies started adding even more cushioning and even more arch support as complaints of flat feet and lower body aches and pains increased and so people started buying shoes that were advertised with the technology to ‘fix’ the problems that were caused by the modern day running shoe to begin with.

So How Can We Actually Solve the Problem?

So studies show that shod individuals, especially in adolescence, were far more prone to foot and toe deformities from the impact of shoes during key years of development, because of this it is believed that children should be barefoot for as long as possible as this is the peak time of physical, mental and nervous system developments.

In a study on the short term effects, long term study awaiting peer review, it has been found that being barefoot or in minimalistic shoes specifically whilst running changes the foot strike from a rear strike to a mid or forefoot strike, increasing ankle plantar flexion, decreasing stride length and increasing frequency, and increasing range of motion in the foot and ankle leading to a reduction of ground reaction forces and impact on the knees and hips. Cross sectional studies have found that barefoot people on average have stronger feet with a wider forefoot and higher natural arch and less deformities than a shod person.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should be walking the streets and supermarkets with no protection beneath our feet, in the wrong environment this can lead to puncture wounds and infections if improperly implemented, however minimalist shoes would be a practical step in the right direction for most people.

What is a minimalist Shoe?

A good quality minimalist, sometimes referred to as barefoot, shoe has: a thin and flexible sole, under 6mm, to allow you to feel the ground beneath your feet; zero heel lift, just like your actual foot, shown to increase strength in you foot improving alignment, stability and stamina; a wide toe box which mirrors the shape of your foot without being too tight and narrow and are light weight.

Photo from: showing the flexibility of a minimalist shoe
Photo from: showing the flexibility of a minimalist shoe

Why Should I Try it?

We’ve already established that barefoot shoes promote strong muscles in the foot but is that enough to make people want to try it out? Here are some more benefits associated with being barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes.

The wide shape of the shoe leads to a wider range of muscles being engaged and strengthened. It also allows your feet to develop in the correct way, preventing deformities.

Many people, especially runners, say that barefoot shoes have lead to a pain free exercise experience. Heel striking has a negative impact on the knee and hip joint and by switching to barefoot many people improve their running technique and begin to land on the ball of their foot and reduce impact through the lower body. Long term use has also showed a positive impact on reducing back pain and leads to better posture for most people.

Some studies show that being barefoot can lower your blood pressure whilst reducing tension and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. There are also many acupressure points in your feet that can aid in reducing stress, helping with digestion and promoting sound sleep. By having such a thin sole on your shoe these reflex points are being massaged continually through the day.

There are more nerve endings in your feet than anywhere in your body, except your fingers and lips, and by allowing your feet to really feel the ground under them the nerves are better stimulated and therefore provide better information to your brain about what is going on at the floor level, this can improve your balance, agility and alignment and make you less prone to injury.

My Experience with being Barefoot and Minimalist Shoes.

Since transitioning to being barefoot, and wearing minimalist shoes when needed, I have found a new love for moving and an appreciation of the floor around me. After over 12 years of joint pain, particularly in my back and knee, many sessions of physio and increasingly high insoles I thought that nothing was going to work for me but after speaking to a friend who had been barefoot for a while he suggested I gave it a go, after reading this article: about transitioning to minimalist shoes I bought my first pair and I’ve never looked back since. I’ve found alleviation of my pain, making running and hiking more enjoyable, and feel better connected to the ground around me.

From completely barefoot strolls in gardens and fields, after checking for any potential dangers underfoot first, to hikes, jogs and general training in minimalist shoes I’ve finally found what works for me and would recommend it to anyone looking to make a healthier change for their mind and their feet.

So why not try it? Make a start today by making the effort to take your shoes off round the house, feel the grass under your feet in the garden or the sand at the beach and start to make your feet the strongest they’ve ever been.

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