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.