Walking barefoot helps to improve balance, posture and prevent common foot injuries, according to an American researcher, Patrick McKeon.
McKeon, a professor at Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance in New York, says that the more people go barefoot at home, in the office or outside, the healthier their feet will be.
He believes that the small, often overlooked muscles in the foot play a vital but underestimated role in movement and stability, similar to the core muscles in the abdomen.
The researcher explained their importance by describing the cycle of feedback between the large “extrinsic” muscles in the legs and feet, the smaller “intrinsic” muscles in the feet, and the neural connections that send information from them to the brain.
When this cycle is broken, it can lead to overuse injuries that most athletes are familiar with.
Shoes can also have a negative effect on this cycle, McKeon explained. “When you put a big sole underneath, you put a big dampening effect on that information. There’s a missing link that connects the body with its environment.”
Without the information provided by the small muscles in the foot, the larger muscles over-compensate and over-exert beyond the point of their natural ability to maintain and repair themselves. And when these muscles are no longer able to absorb the forces of activity, the forces are transferred to the tendons, bones and ligaments, resulting in an increased risk of injury.
McKeon says that the only way of reintroducing this link and reactivating the cycle is to take off our shoes and strengthen the muscles in our feet by walking barefoot.
Exercises consisting of shortening the foot by squeezing the ball of the foot towards the heel can be done anywhere at any time. They can be particularly beneficial for injuries such as ankle sprain and shin splits (a wear-and-tear injury that is common in dancers and gymnasts).
The professor says that the benefits are not just physical, they can also be financial. Strong feet simply need enough support to protect them and grip the ground, no more than that. No need to invest in very expensive shoes.
He also recommends that 5-10% of the distance in a running routine should be barefoot, with a transition phase using ultralight running shoes.
However, he suggests avoiding walking or running barefoot in winter, because the cold tends to anaesthetize any pain.