The Benefits of Walking Barefoot
Do you remember the last time you walked barefoot along the beach or across freshly cut grass? How good did it feel?!
There’s something deliciously sensual and grounding about feeling our connection to Mother Earth through the soles of our feet. Noticing the tickly movement of sand or the soft, bounciness of grass underneath our skin offers a totally different, enlivening experience to walking across it in shoes.
There is increasing research to show there are many benefits to walking barefoot. These range from strengthening the muscles and tendons of the feet and lower legs, to improving our balance, to reducing inflammation and disease, and even improving our sleep and mental health.
Read on as we explore why ditching our shoes for wild walks could do wonders for mind, body and soul.
Improves muscle strength and body alignment
Our feet are made to stretch, splay, flex, rock, roll and bend. As we walk they need space to expand and for the toes to spread, especially the big toe, which acts as the rocker from which we push off for propulsion forward. The technology and padding of a modern shoe protect our feet at best, and squash and contort them at worst (yes, we’re looking at you stilettos!). Walking barefoot allows for the natural movement of the feet and therefore restores our natural walking pattern, known as our gait.
Our feet serve as the foundation for the whole body in terms of support, balance and posture, so foot mechanics have a far-reaching impact. From the lower leg muscles, all the way up into the knees, thighs, hips and lower back, healthy feet can mean the whole body becomes better aligned.
Proprioception is the awareness of the position and movement of the body in its surroundings. It’s present in every single one of our muscles, in our joints, and also in other soft tissues like our tendons and ligaments. Without proprioception, we wouldn’t be able to move without consciously thinking about not bumping into something or touch the tip of our nose with our eyes closed.
Barefoot stimulation enhances the many proprioceptors in our feet, keeping them sharp and responsive. In contrast, padding the feet with thick soles potentially causes the brain to need to strike the ground harder in search of feedback and can cause clumsy, unskilful movements which may cause pain over time. Just think of gymnasts: they don’t wear trainers because they would lose sensation and control, making injury far likely.
Reducing inflammation and disease
There is emerging research that may indicate that walking barefoot connects us to a powerful and healing natural energy in the Earth. Barefoot advocates including Gwyneth Paltrow call this “Earthing” and swear by it for everything from inflammation and arthritis to insomnia and depression. They believe that a connection to negatively charged electrons released from the Earth helps neutralise the positively charged free radicals in our bodies that can lead to inflammation and disease. They say this is part of what brings about a sense of calmness after walking barefoot and some also suggest this energy exchange between the Earth and us enables us to sleep better.
Connection to nature
We all know the tremendous benefits to our mental health from spending time walking outdoors in green or blue spaces. Doing it barefoot offers a whole new level of connection – a rewilding experience that can help us feel in deeper relationship to the Earth than is possible when our bodies are physically separated from it by rubber or leather soles.
You may already practice mindfulness on walks – tuning into your senses to stay present in the moment – and perhaps you have tried Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Doing this barefoot adds a new layer of sensation that can bring a fresh sense of awakening, which in turn can serve to boost our mood and relieve stress.
Soothing the nervous system
There’s an instinctiveness to kicking off our flip-flops when we arrive at the beach. Often a feeling of deep relaxation follows as we sink our toes into the sand. Part of the science behind this may be due to our feet’s extraordinary sensitivity. They have more than 200,000 nerve endings which are constantly sending and receiving information to the same part of the brain as our hands. These are the parts of us that reach out into the world, seeking information about where we are, and constantly sending messages back to the brain to assess whether we are safe. Taking away the sensory feedback we get from the ground by wearing shoes may be a missed opportunity to connect mindfully and soothingly with the natural world beneath our feet.
Where to begin
If this strikes a chord with you and you’re ready to try some barefoot rewilding, here are a few things to consider to guide you along your way:
- Test it indoors. Before you head off into the woods or fields, get used to walking around your home or even your office without your shoes on. Practicing on surfaces that you know are even can be a great start point.
- Take it slow. Once you get outside, let your feet and ankles adapt by beginning with short 15 to 20 minute sessions. Only increase the distance and time when your feet feel ready.
- Take good care of your body. You have spent a whole lifetime wearing shoes, so listen to your body and take a break if you feel discomfort – and certainly if you feel pain.
- Try other barefoot activities. Yoga, Pilates and martial arts are all practised without shoes and complement barefoot walking beautifully.
- Try out a minimalist shoe. There are lots of shoes on the market which offer an almost barefoot experience, but with a little extra protection. We love VivoBarefoot, who don’t just make amazing shoes but are also a fellow B Corp, meaning they balance business with looking after people and the planet.