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Is Walking Barefoot A Good Idea?

05-21-2018

By Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, foot and ankle specialist

What are the benefits?

There are multiple schools of thought regarding barefoot walking as there are both benefits and risks to doing so. The most straightforward benefit to barefoot walking is that in theory, walking barefoot more closely restores our 'natural' walking pattern, also known as our gait. When walking barefoot we tend to take shorter strides, which allows us to better control our foot position as it strikes the ground. Additionally, this more natural gait allows us to maintain appropriate range of motion in our foot and ankle joints as well as maintain adequate strength and stability within our muscles and ligaments. Furthermore, the concern with shoes is that they may alter how we walk, thereby leading to increased forces and stress across various parts of our lower extremity including the foot and ankle. Lastly, improperly fitting shoes can be more constricting, leading to bunions, hammertoes, or other deformities.

What are the dangers?

While walking barefoot sounds like the perfect option, there are dangers that should be considered. First, without appropriate strength in the foot we are at risk of having poor mechanics of walking, thereby increasing our risk for injury. This is especially important to consider when someone is beginning to incorporate barefoot walking after spending much of their life in shoes. While there is concern that shoes can lead to altered walking patterns or deformities, the key is that a properly fitting shoe may provide good structural support and padding while also allowing for a natural gait. Also, the surface being walked on should be considered. While it may be more natural to be barefoot, without additional padding from shoes we are susceptible to injury from our terrain, including rough or wet surfaces or issues with temperature, whether too hot or too cold... and certainly don't forget that being barefoot increases the risk of a penetrating injury from glass or other sharp objects on the ground.

How can you properly walk and exercise barefoot?

Ultimately there are benefits to barefoot walking, however it may not be suited for everyone. The key with incorporating barefoot activities is doing so in a controlled and safe manner. Just like any physical activity, if we are not accustomed to barefoot walking we are at risk of injury. Therefore, this should be gradually incorporated over a period of time to allow the foot and ankle to adapt to the new environment. Additionally, emphasis should be on proper mechanics of walking on a surface that will better accommodate the foot, such as grass, soft soil, or even an all weather running track. Lastly, more strenuous activities such as barefoot running or hiking should not be incorporated until an extensive amount of time has been spent preparing the barefoot for such strenuous activity.