Understanding Barefoot Walking - A Possibility For Health?
Feet are our supporting pillars, the main contact to the ground. Feet are perfectly engineered to withstand almost all sorts of pressures from running, jumping or climbing, and adapt to almost all types of terrains, whether uneven or flat, soft or solid, smooth or spiky. The elegant play between the small bones in our feet, our balance system (proprioception) and the work of the small foot muscles allow for all of this. Once again… nature's craft at its finest.
But something may have gone wrong… in a large proportion of us, feet may be far from expressing their perfect function, contributing to some of the aches and pains we commonly experience in modern society (ie. knee pain, back pain etc). This is the intriguing position held by those who believe we’d benefit from a return to minimal shoes and barefoot walking. Let’s understand the theory behind these claims and whether they are reality or not...
What ruins the ‘perfect foot’?
Put simply, the ruin of the ‘perfect foot’ may be our favourite sneakers with thick soles, ankle supports and tight toe-boxes. Add to this the flat concrete grounds on which we walk and the lack of regular movement due to our sedentary lives, and voilà... the recipe for inefficient feet.
Is it a big deal not having ‘perfect feet’?
The answer to this is… maybe. Among the supporters of barefoot walking, it is a common belief that the likelihood of issues such as ankle sprains, bunions and plantar fasciitis may increase as a consequence of using modern shoes… and the list does not end here! Some also claim that the transition from ‘natural barefoot walking’ to modern shoes may be at the root of other issues including knee and hip osteoarthritis, and low back pain. What is the rationale behind these claims? Keep reading to understand the workings of our feet and how it may impact the rest of the body.
The structure of the foot
The foot is a complex section of the body consisting of 26 different bones, 19 small muscles that sit within the foot (intrinsic muscles) and 10 muscles that originate in the leg but then cross over the foot. A lot of stuff! And we haven’t mentioned ligaments, nerves, joints… as you can imagine, it is an incredibly well designed section of the body, each element working in coordination with the other to allow us to remain stably planted on the ground, no matter what you're doing.
The sense of proprioception
Proprioception is the ability of our brain to perceive body positioning and movement, often referred to as our sense of balance. There are millions of nerves within our feet providing vital information to the proprioceptive system of the brain each second that passes. It looks like, the more we stimulate these nerves through movement, stretch and impact, the better our proprioception gets; so, do we stimulate our feet enough?
Probably not. Because of the thick soles on our shoes and the flat concrete ground on which we walk, there is a lack of movement going through the 33 foot joints, and very little stretch and impact reaching the skin and muscles of our feet. And maybe the less these nerves get stimulated to send signals to the brain, the less effective they are at doing so… this may explain why we so often awkwardly twist our ankles, or why we are not able to paint with our feet like some handless people can. We somewhat lack… proprioception.
Or do we just lack thousands of hours of training? Actually, to date no research has been conclusive into demonstrating that all people going barefoot have better proprioception or are less likely to get an ankle sprain. So don’t panic about all the years you’ve spent not walking barefoot, you’re not going to suddenly get injured. But if using minimal shoes is something that intrigues you, try it out and see for yourself whether you feel more balanced or not.
A matter of muscle strength?
There are 19 muscles that have origin and insertion within the foot (“intrinsic”). Finely working together, these muscles allow us to mold our feet over different grounds, absorb pressures, propel us forward during push-off and provide us with overall stability.
Because of our urban lifestyle, from an early age we have utilised these muscles very little. As a consequence, it looks like they have grown quite weak, especially if you compare them to hunter-gatherer populations that notoriously walk barefoot.
Although there is some evidence to support the important role of muscle strength in foot health, especially for walking, measuring muscle strength and its role in protecting from future injury is complex and inconclusive. Whilst science discovers more, however, why not just remove our shoes and walk around bare feet more often: at home, in your garden, at the park or on a beach! See how it feels.
The medial plantar arch
Somewhat like a beautiful renaissance arch, the foot has its own architectural arch: the medial plantar arch. And guess what… healthy intrinsic muscles of the foot (alongside a strong plantar aponeurosis) are an essential element to hold this arch in place.
How important is the arch? Well, the arch allows the foot to work a bit like a spring: recoiling, bending and stretching under the pressure of the ground, and becoming a rigid lever when the next stride starts (the Windlass Mechanism). It is often thought that efficient foot springs mean that forces are dissipated and spread right there instead of travelling up to impact directly the knee, hip and low back (for instance, when running or jumping). Some experts think that this may save the knee and hip from a lot of strain.
Keep the calluses!
Barefoot walking will result in a thicker layer of skin on the sole of our feet, but resist the temptation of getting rid of them! A recent Nature study found that barefoot walkers from Kenyan villages have a 30% thicker sole than the average western inhabitant. We may think that the thicker the sole of someone's foot, the less sensitive he/she may be to physical contact or at sending proprioceptive information, but that was not the case. The study also found that these people were just as good, if not better, at perceiving vibration on their feet. In addition to this, foot calluses protect you from damage and allow you to confidently walk on any surface. They may not look glamorous but hey, let’s keep those feet calluses!
For most of human history, we utilised almost no shoes or very minimal shoes such as sandals of moccasins. It is only in the 1970 that Nike came along and started producing thick and bouncy soles. In his famously controversial piece of research, Dr. Liebeman reported that Kenyan runners who habitually run barefoot show less impact forces through their feet compared with their shoed counterparts. It is believed that barefoot/minimal shoe running changes the way we place our feet during foot strike, with the load being placed more at the forefoot. This, in theory, may be beneficial in order to propel us forward more efficiently and spread forces better throughout the foot.
Ever since the paper was published, the debate has continued as to whether or not minimal shoes should be adopted by runners. Research seems to show that people running with minimal shoes simply run less than shoed runners. This is because feet are likely to be sorer and muscles are working harder as we wear minimal shoes, thus preventing us from running too long of distances. Goes without saying, if we run less the chance of injury is smaller, explaining why minimal and barefoot runners may have less injuries. But the debate goes on, and we look forward to the next stages of scientific understanding.
An intriguing theory: Earthing
‘We are disconnected, literally unplugged from the ground!’... in the last 20 years, Earthing has emerged as an alternative therapeutic intervention. The theory is that the earth has a subtle electrical charge that actively interacts with our bioelectrical function. The electrons that we draw from the earth are able to neutralise free-radicals, thus optimising our healing functions. Plastic and rubber soles insulate us, preventing electrical conduction between our body and the earth. When we remove these ‘barriers’ to the ground, inflammation levels seem to reduce, overall cardiovascular circulation improves, stress and pain levels reduce, and circadian rhythms (sleep-wake patterns) seem to be better regulated. To date, this is just a theory lacking solid scientific backing; nevertheless, without resorting to the trap of wishful-thinking, it still is a very fascinating idea.
So, could going barefoot be a secret for good health?
The answer, as with everything else is, possibly! It is important to keep in mind that health is the product of multiple interacting factors including strictly physical elements, like foot strength or mobility, as much as our psychological health, nutrition, exercise routines, work-life balances and so on. Put simply, you may spend your days walking barefoot and have the best looking arches but with poor work habits, a stressful schedule, a manager you hate and an unhappy family environment, you may still be in a lot of pain.
The idea of walking barefoot or with minimal footwear sounds very fascinating and maybe a logical thing to do. Giving it a go cannot hurt, especially as it is approached with an open and honest mindset, knowing that the relaxing effect of having our feet massaged on a patch of grass, taking a de-stressing break and promoting circulation by walking are all elements as important as being barefoot. So, as we wait for more solid and convincing evidence, why not take your shoes off and go for a nice walk in the park or the beach?