One of the main structural features that make humans unique is our feet.
With 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 ligaments and 200,000 nerve endings the human foot is a complex system of springs and levers. How your foot functions has a huge effect on the biomechanics and function of your whole body.
Shoes are commonly seen as a necessity to help hold your feet in the ‘right’ place and to change biomechanics. But what if the human foot is not broken by default, but perfectly designed? What if this complex system is not just designed to move, but needs to move?
There’s a multitude of reasons we think that incorporating some ‘barefoot time’ is beneficial to almost everyone’s health.
Consistently immobilizing the foot in shoes can cause ligaments to weaken and muscles to atrophy (decrease in size) so your foot becomes weaker, and in turn more reliant on an outside source of support (like a shoe). When we compromise natural foot movement, the rest of the body, from the foot up, must align differently to compensate.
Your foot has 3 arches. The arches of the feet act as a spring mechanism and shock absorber. They allow the foot to transfer force effectively through the foot and body as we move, lessening impact on other joints of the body and spine. Arch supports (in shoes or insoles) diminish this natural movement of the arch and can increase stress on the body’s joints.
Another cool thing about our feet is their role in providing sensory information to the brain. Proprioception is the sense of our body’s position and orientation. We use this sense to move and the more feedback, the better the movement. About 70% of that feedback comes via pressure receptors, mostly located in the feet. The human foot needs protection, but thick, shock-absorbing soles greatly reduce sensory feedback and therefore limit the quality of whole body movement.
The natural flexing motions of the feet when walking and running barefoot also helps to improve blood and lymph circulation, which reduces swelling in the feet and cleans away toxins.
Shoes are now known to be a major factor in many common foot complaints: hallux valgus, hammer toe, bunions, fallen arches, Morton’s neuroma, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, even knee arthritis.
Another concept that is gaining a lot of momentum is ‘Earthing’ or ‘Grounding’. This is the concept that there is benefit to be gained from direct physical contact with the Earth because of the vast supply of electrons on the Earth's surface. While grounding electrical appliances is a well known practice, the idea has been overlooked in humans. Some of the recent evidence supporting this approach involves multiple studies documenting Earthing's improvement in blood viscosity, heart rate variability, inflammation, cortisol dynamics, sleep, autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance, and reduced effects of stress.
If you’re keen on trying out barefoot – remember – your feet (and body!) will have made huge adaptions to the footwear they have spent most of life in. We can't stress enough how important it is to go slowly and wisely. While walking barefoot can help the body align naturally; improving natural gait and helping to develop a healthy posture, it is also a big adaptation process for your entire body. Expecting to completely change a lifetime of movement patterns in a matter of weeks (even months and years) could cause a lot of unnecessary injury.
Unfortunately sometimes damage that is near irreversible can take place and can mean that barefoot isn't always the best option. If you have specific problems with your feet or body it's best to seek an opinion from someone (like a chiropractor) who can look at how your body is moving and help you implement change that is appropriate for YOU. Yoga (with the guidance of a trained teacher) is a fantastic place to gain awareness of your feet and experience how their function impacts the movements of your body..
Take it slowly and be patient. Explore how your feet feel with each stage of movement. With summer on it's way, it's the perfect time to explore our beautiful Tasman Beaches & set your 'sole' free.
The Barefoot Book, 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes; L.Daniel Howell, Ph.D.
Making Sense of Barefoot Running – Lee Saxby
How to Strengthen Your (Bare, Flat) Feet