While there may be a perfect shoe for every workout, new research might have you thinking twice before lacing up your sneakers. Walking barefoot has been linked with improved sleep, reduced PMS symptoms, decreased stress, eased muscle and joint pain and increased energy, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health. However, it’s not always the best choice.
Here, a look at the pros and cons of going barefoot.
Researchers, who refer to walking barefoot as “earthing” because of the direct contact between the feet and the earth, believe electrons in the earth help regulate bodily systems, including immune and inflammatory responses.
“Without shoes, the foot is ‘grounded’ and engaged in more tactile awareness,” explains Dr. Grace Torres-Hodges, a podiatrist and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association.
Going barefoot could also be easier on your joints. A 2018 study published in Royal Society Open Science compared the force of heel impact between walking barefoot and wearing minimal sandals and found wearing shoes caused walkers to hit the ground harder, increasing force magnitude and vertical impulses; barefoot walkers took lighter steps, easing stress on their joints.
“Walking barefoot allows us to use the natural mechanics of the foot,” notes Matt Minard, DPT, a physical therapist with Carolinas Rehabilitation. “Shoes can alter [those mechanics] depending on their stiffness, flex points and width. Walking barefoot can also make our arches stronger.”
While there is nothing wrong with walking barefoot on the beach or tossing your shoes for a game of Frisbee in the backyard, going shoeless is not always a good idea. Torres-Hodges suggests wearing shoes on certain surfaces, including gravel or asphalt. You should also wear shoes for a walking workout — even for short distances — because shoes offer shock absorption and protect your feet from injuries and hot asphalt.
Wearing shoes offers certain biomechanical advantages. Research in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research asked men to participate in five walking trials wearing flip flops, sandals, running shoes and going barefoot. Walking in sneakers was associated with lower ground reaction force, center of pressure, less knee flexion and better range of motion than walking barefoot.
“Most running shoes have a 10–12-millimeter heel built in; when we go barefoot, the heel sits lower and puts more tension on the Achilles and we see a lot of Achilles tendonitis due to this,” explains Minard. “Shoes with a good cushion provide exoskeletal support.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
While taking advantage of nature for barefoot walks in the sand or grass can be perfectly fine, shoes are essential for more serious walks. And those with diabetes, nerve damage or other health issues that could be exacerbated by walking barefoot should always wear shoes outdoors.
If you want to try barefoot walking, Torres-Hodges suggests applying sunscreen to your feet; daily self-massage to keep muscles supple and inspecting your feet for corns, calluses and other signs that walking barefoot is putting too much pressure on your feet — and remember: wear supportive shoes for training.