The Benefits of Barefoot Living

Health & Fitness Trends: A Look Backwards

The health and fitness industry is driven by science, technology, medicine and consumerism.  These communities help shape the definition of ‘health and fitness’ by continually asking questions and searching for answers.  For some the search for answers means looking forward to see what new developments are on the horizon.  For others it means a look back into human history to see what life used to be like. Followers of the Paleo diet might advocate that the way our ancestors ate during the Palaeolithic period, roughly 2.5 million years ago, is the way humans should be eating now.  There are some of us who frown upon modern and contemporary living, opting for a more minimalist way of life.  Turning their backs on technology they have returned to the way things used to be; building and insulating houses made of natural resources, growing their own food, chopping fire wood to heat the house etc.  We can also see this retrospective outlook modelled by the barefoot/minimalist footwear community, who might suggest that we throw away our thick-soled shoes in exchange for a thinner, lighter shoe, or no shoe at all.

 

Barefoot living: A Step Forwards

Going barefoot/wearing minimalist footwear isn’t just another health and fitness trend.  It is a return to a more natural and unconstrained way of movement that respects and acknowledges the anatomical design of the foot and lower limb.  Barefoot living encourages us to use our feet the way they were designed to function.  Studies of barefoot living date back over 100 years and the benefits have been documented by numerous people ever since.  Phil Hoffman, an American doctor from St. Louis, Missouri, was one of the first to record the positive adaptations that occur when we spend more time barefoot.  Back in 1905 he states that:

It is very significant that in the one hundred eighty-six pairs of primitive feet examined, I did not find a single foot associated with the symptoms of weakness so characteristic and common in adult shoe-wearing feet, which are weakened by the restraint the shoe exerts over function.” (1)

 

4 Reasons to Ditch Your Shoes

 

  1. Earthing/Grounding

Earthing (or grounding) refers to the benefits gained from walking barefoot outside or sitting, working, or sleeping indoors which allows the transfer of earth’s electrons from the ground into the body.  These benefits include better sleep, reduced pain, reduced whole body inflammation and significant increases in blood flow (2).  When our bare feet or skin comes in contact with the earth, free electrons are taken up into the body. This occurs primarily due to the fact that the body is composed of mostly water and minerals which in combination are excellent conductors of electrons from the Earth.  By spending only one hour in contact with the earth’s surface, we can begin to influence our health status for the better (3). 

 

  1. Increased Sensory Input

All systems run on information.  The quality and quantity of the information determines how effective the output will be.  The body and brain connection is no exception.  Our feet are the only contact we have with the ground.  When we cover them with thick rubber or leather we reduce the crucial raw data input that our brain needs in order orchestrate movement with stability and control.  Phillip Beach, author of ‘Muscles and Meridians’, describes conventional shoes from this perspective as “sensory deprivation chambers” that reduce the quality and quantity of information coming up from the ground.

Rehabilitating our feet is essential if we are to help reduce the incidence and severity of musculoskeletal distress, in particular low back pain.  Some of the most vulnerable segments of the spine are found at the junction between the lumbar spine and the sacrum (L4,L5 and S1).  These segments send their sensory spinal nerves down to the sole of the foot.  Can you see the connection here? Some of the most vulnerable and commonly injured parts of the spine are directly related to the soles of the feet. 

 

  1. Structure and Function

The foot is made up of 26 bones and 33 joints.  There are several different types of joints throughout the human body, some are designed to allow movement while others are not.  All joints in the foot are designed for movement, and work in relationship with muscles, ligaments and other structures to dissipate forces coming up from the ground and transfer energy in a mechanically efficient way.  This anatomical design is what helps us discover and explore movement when we’re young. The Improvement of motor skills are basic processes of growth, maturation and development during childhood and adolescence. They depend on permanent interactions between the neuromuscular system and the environment.  Regular barefoot activities during childhood seem to be beneficial for the development of balance and jumping skills (4),which are essential movement patterns in almost all sports and activities.

Furthermore, walking barefoot enables the foot to spread under load thus reducing pressure upon contact with the ground and also throughout the sole of the foot (5).  The ability to reduce pressure may have a significant role to play in several common overuse conditions of the foot.

 

  1. Minimising Risk of Injury

Human movement is extremely unique to each person and the situational factors around physical injuries involve numerous variables that make injury prediction almost impossible.  However, by allowing the foot and ankle complex to work according to its design and intended function, we might be able to reduce the risk and severity of injuries to the foot and lower limb. 

Patrick McKeon, professor of Health Sciences and Human Performance at Ithaca College in New York, mentions that when a big sole is placed underneath the foot, it puts a big dampening effect on the information going up to the brain. There’s a missing link that connects the body with its environment. Without the information provided by the small muscles in the foot, the larger muscles over-compensate and over-exert beyond the point of their natural ability to maintain and repair themselves. When these muscles are no longer able to absorb the forces of activity, these forces are transferred to the tendons, bones and ligaments, resulting in an increased risk of injury. (6)

To summarise, modern shoes do several things to the underside of the foot: (7)

  • Limit the natural movement of the foot
  • Prevent muscle activity of the muscles that insert on the heel
  • Hold the plantar fascia in a stretched position
  • Reduce circulation on the underside of the foot
  • Cause a heavy heel-striking gait

Concluding Thoughts…

As an Osteopath and Personal Trainer, I’m always telling my clients and patients to spend more time barefoot for preventative reasons and also as a method of rehabilitation in combination with other forms of treatment.  I personally spend as much time as I can in minimalist footwear and my feet have never felt better.  Have a think about what you’ve read and feel free to leave some comments in the box below.