I grew up in Central Africa where, like most other kids there, I got my first pair of shoes when I started school. As soon as we got home the shoes came off because, according to my mother, shoes were bad for our feet if they were worn for anything but school and church. At all other times we would play and wonder around the bush barefoot.
Even as a young adult it was normal to walk around barefoot in small towns. When I moved to London in my 20’s I discovered that normal had changed. Walking back to my flat one sunny day I was stopped by two police officers. I was pretty nervous because being stopped by the police in Zambia was not considered a good omen. Strangely these officers seemed very friendly and seemed concerned that I was mentally well. I asked them why they were concerned: it was because I was walking barefoot on the pavement. Not illegal they assured me, but definitely not normal. I thought my mother had got it wrong all those years ago – it must be bad for our feet not to wear shoes.
Thirty years later I have had to reconsider. Articles written by some learned people are beginning to tell us that walking bare foot is good for us after all.
When a toddler begins to walk it is best for them to do so barefoot as they use all the correct muscles in their feet and receive feedback from the ground. This improves their proprioception or awareness of all parts of their body in space. Obviously, the risk of frostbite from walking barefoot outside in a cold UK winter trumps the proprioceptive benefits of letting your child walk barefoot outside but do let them do so when it is safe and comfortable to.
Many of the benefits of barefoot walking are biomechanical in that it restores our innate gait or walking pattern Some of the benefits of this include:
- Better control of your foot’s position when it hits the ground.
- Improvement in proprioceptive neural input to the brain from receptors in your muscles and joints which lead to a better awareness of your body’s position in space, and may even reduce pain.
- Keeping all the joints, muscles and ligaments working as they should maintains strength, stability and range of movement in the foot and ankle.
- Proper foot function can also benefit the knees, hips and back because all of them are part of a chain of movement.
- Less chance of developing problems from ill-fitting feet.
Again, it is important to use discretion and consider all of the risks from things such as sharp uneven surfaces, broken glass, thorns etc.. When starting outdoor walking you should start with short walks and build it up until your feet and ankle adapt. As the soles of your feet toughen up and the muscles and tendons strengthen you can build up the distance and tackle tougher terrain.
There is also a body of emerging thought that hypothesize that there are also further health benefits from walking barefoot on natural surfaces in natural surroundings known as “earthing”. Some studies indicate that these health come from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. We seem to be better off when we are in direct with Earth’s natural charge. Some of the health benefits claimed are increasing antioxidants, reduced inflammation, reduced stress and improved sleep.
Personally, even the thought of walking barefoot on a nice path through the woods on a sunny day brings my pulse down. Perhaps my old mum was right after all.