Your shoes are screwing up your feet. Not just your pointy-toed high-heels, although those are probably the worst. Those cushy, you wear for running errands or exercise — the ones meant and marketed for physical activity — are actually messing with your feet.
Experts believe that cushioned shoes negatively affect balance, stability and foot strength because the layer of foam between your feet and the ground dulls the messaging between your feet and your brain. Wearingmay also become a sort of crutch, making your feet extra sensitive and causing your ankles to weaken.
Before you kick off your shoes for good, however, know that going barefoot isn’t actually the best answer (at least not for everyone). Living a sans-shoes lifestyle may strengthen your feet, but it doesn’t come without risks.
For those yearning to go barefoot, knowing the pros and cons before starting is key to avoiding injury.
Above: What feet and toes are supposed to look like, according to Vivobarefoot, a minimalist shoe brand.
Why you should spend more time barefoot
Spending time barefoot is good for your feet.
“Going barefoot allows the feet to spread out more naturally and also forces the muscles and joints to work more,” says Dr. Paul Langer, podiatrist Twin Cities Orthopedics. “which is beneficial for keeping the feet strong, toes aligned and joints mobile.”
In fact, some research shows that people can gain foot strength just by wearing minimalist shoes, without doing any foot exercises.
We move differently in shoes with cushioning than we do when barefoot or with minimal cushioning and support, he says. People tend to take longer strides, which affects how the limbs absorb impact in the feet, ankles, knees and hips.
Some studies show that foot morphology is different in cultures that go barefoot as compared to cultures that wear shoes, says Dr. Langer. He cites Benno Nigg, a Swiss pioneer of podiatry, who has called shoes “filters” because they filter the sensory input signal from the feet to the brain.
While Dr. Langer says he hasn’t seen any studies proving long-term changes in proprioception due to footwear, “certainly the more stuff between the bottom of the foot and the ground, the less sensory input there is, which alters proprioception.”
In other words, walking around barefoot sends stronger messages to your brain and could result in improved balance and agility over time.
And if you go barefoot long enough, your feet will build up calluses for natural protection, which is apparently just as good as shoes.
Is it safe to exercise barefoot?
Yes, but it is not without risk, Dr. Langer says. Some common risks of working out barefoot include:
- Stubbing, scraping or cutting your toes or feet
- Stepping on something sharp
- Stepping in something gross (and potentially getting a bacterial or fungal infection)
- Dropping weight or other equipment on your toes
Additionally, if you’re just starting out, you face risks such as instability and difficulty balancing. Since your feet are accustomed to the support and stability provided by cushioned shoes, you have a higher risk of falling or twisting an ankle thanks to your newly barefoot feet.
Whether or not it’s safe to exercise barefoot also depends on what kind of exercise you’re doing and where you’re doing it. If you live in a big city, for example, nearby streets may be filthy and preclude you from walking or running barefoot. Heading to a sandy beach is a different story. Likewise, working out barefoot in a gym is gross (and generally frowned upon), but doing a dumbbell workout in your home gym barefoot is fine.
If you want to work out barefoot but you feel hesitant for any of those reasons, you could try minimal shoes to start.
Shoes that have no cushioning or support such as Vibram FiveFingers, Vivobarefoot or Inov8 BareXF210 are about as close to barefoot as you can get, Dr. Langer says. “They allow the toes to align more naturally and do not add any midsole, which means they have no foam cushioning or stability devices,” he explains.
How to start exercising barefoot
Dr. Langer cautions against transitioning from cushy shoes to barefoot workouts right away. If you want to start exercising barefoot, start small. Walk around your house and your own yard barefoot to reteach your feet the sensations of walking on different surfaces. Tread carefully and watch for objects that might hurt your non-callused feet.
Yoga and bodyweight strength training are great next steps. These types of exercises eliminate the risk of dropping objects on your toes because there are no objects involved. They also provide you the chance to “get to know” your feet and how they support you, Dr. Langer says.
Eventually, you may work yourself up to go on longer walks outdoors barefoot (in a safe and clean location) or with minimalist shoes. Lifting weights barefoot is generally safe so long as you’re careful to keep your feet out of the way of weights. Ballistic workouts such as CrossFit workouts pose a greater risk.
Potential risks of the barefoot lifestyle
While the argument for going barefoot is clear, this lifestyle isn’t without risks. “Aside from the obvious — stepping on sharp objects — the biggest risks are making the transition from conventional shoes too quickly and not allowing for adaptation,” Dr. Langer says.
This concept applies to any change in activity, he points out, not just going barefoot. “Just as you shouldn’t go from being sedentary to running five days a week, neither should you go from wearing cushioned, supportive shoes to barefoot or minimalist [shoes].” Instead, you should gradually build up to the scenario and allow your body to comfortably adapt to the new stress or loads.
Attempting to forgo the crucial adaptation period can lead to severe soreness in your arches, heels, ankles, calves, knees and even your hips. In a worst-case scenario, you might actually make your gait worse by trying to transition too quickly.
Benefits of cushioned shoes
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the benefits of cushioning and support for those who need it. For people with an existing injury or those prone to foot pain, proper cushioning is necessary.
Dr. Langer says he ensures that his patients have fully recovered from an injury before starting to go barefoot or minimalist, and he always emphasizes that if barefoot or minimalist shoes provoke pain, there may be a limit to how much a person should wear them or whether they are a good option at all.
“Some of my patients like going barefoot but have found that [a certain] amount of hours per day works best for them,” he notes. “As with any shoe, comfort is very important and people should not force themselves to wear something or go barefoot if it consistently causes pain.”
Plus, cushioning improves comfort and can delay the onset of fatigue in your muscles, “so it’s not like cushioning has no value,” Dr. Langer says. You just have to keep in mind that cushioning has both benefits and costs.
Dr. Langer cites Benno Nigg once more: “There is likely an ideal amount of cushioning for each of us. We just don’t have a way to measure what it might be.”
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.