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Barefoot or not to be Barefoot

I’m always being asked about why I as an osteopath spend time getting people to concentrate on their feet. Only today I had a really interesting discussion with a patient about barefoot walking so I thought I’d write a blog discussing the merits of being barefoot.

Walking barefoot is something you might only do at home. But for many, walking and exercising barefoot is a practice they do daily.

When toddlers learn to walk, parents often are told to let this process happen naturally, and without shoes, as shoes can affect how a child uses the muscles and bones in their feet.

Kids also receive feedback from the ground when they walk barefoot, and it improves their proprioception (awareness of their body in space). That’s why advocates of barefoot walking and exercising are pushing back on wearing shoes all day long and encouraging all of us to let our feet be free. However, there are both pros and cons to this.

What are the benefits of walking barefoot?

Walking barefoot is beneficial for the muscles and ligaments of our feet. It can restore our natural walking patterns and improve foot biomechanics, leading to improved hip, knee, and core mechanics. Being barefoot also improves the proprioceptive neural input (the sensation and feedback coming from your feet touching the ground) to the brain, which leads to greater awareness of the body’s position within space. This in turn can also help with pain relief. Many of my patients will remember me droning on about the importance of having a foot that listens to the ground!

If you go to any running or walking store and look at several different pairs of shoes, you’ll see that many of them have excessive cushioning and support.

While this pillow-type padding can feel pretty amazing when you walk in these types of shoes, there is the commonly held belief that such shoes can prevent you from using certain muscle groups that can actually strengthen your body.

Other benefits of walking barefoot include:

  • better control of your foot position when it strikes the ground

  • better foot mechanics, which can lead to improved mechanics of the hips, knees, and core and can create stronger leg muscles and in turn promote lower spine health.

  • maintaining an appropriate range of motion in your foot and ankle joints as well as adequate strength and stability within your muscles and ligaments

  • relief from improperly fitting shoes, which may cause bunions, hammertoes, or other foot deformities

What are the potential dangers of walking and exercising barefoot?

Walking barefoot in your house is relatively safe. But when you head outside, you expose yourself to potential risks that could be dangerous.

Without appropriate strength and sensory feedback in the foot, you are at risk of having poor mechanics of walking, thereby increasing your risk of injury. This is especially important to consider when you’re beginning to incorporate barefoot walking after having spent much of your life in shoes.

It is important to consider the surface being walked on. While it may be more natural to walk or exercise barefoot, without additional padding from shoes, you are susceptible to injury from the terrain (like rough or wet surfaces or issues with temperature, glass, or other sharp objects on the ground).

There are subtle walking patterns that need to change, so those who walk or run with a heavy heel strike first as the foot’s first point of contact with the ground when in padded shoes may find that in barefoot shoes or indeed in bare feet their heel or ankle may become sore so there often needs to be subtle changes in a persons walking pattern to accommodate this……!

Depending on the level of arthritis someone has in their feet might mean that this style for them is problematic. So it is really important if you are going to embrace this style of walking or exercising that you consult your podiatrist, or manual therapist, such as an osteopath or physio prior to starting to help you prevent injury in the early stages.

Similarly, you also take the chance of exposing your feet to harmful bacteria or infections when you walk barefoot, especially outside.

People who suffer from diabetes should always consult with their GP or podiatrist before going barefoot. If they have a condition called peripheral neuropathy they can sustain wounds on the bottom of their feet and not realize it.

How do you properly walk and exercise barefoot?

Knowing how to walk and exercise barefoot takes time, patience, and the right information. So, before you ditch your shoes in favour of a more natural approach to walking and exercising, there are a few things to consider.

  • Start slow. You need to be patient and start with short 15- to 20-minute sessions of walking barefoot. It’s vital that you allow your feet and ankles to adapt to the new environment. As your feet get used to walking without shoes, you can increase the distance and time.

  • Ease up if you feel any new pain or discomfort. While walking barefoot sounds like the perfect option, there are dangers that should be considered. Without appropriate strength and sensory awareness in the foot, you are at risk of having poor mechanics of walking, thereby increasing your risk of injury.

  • Try it indoors. Before venturing outside, it might be a good idea to let your bare feet get used to the safe surfaces in your house.

  • Practice on safe surfaces. Once you’ve mastered the indoors, try walking on outside surfaces that are less dangerous, such as turf, rubber tracks, sandy beaches, and grass.

  • Consider using a minimalist shoe. While your feet are adjusting to less structure and padding from your shoes, you may want to consider using a minimalist instead of going completely barefoot.

  • Experiment with balance exercises. Start with simple balance exercises like standing on one foot or pressing yourself up onto your toes and lowering them down slowly. Try walking heel to toe in a narrow line and feeling through your feet what the surface underneath your feet feels like.

  • Try an activity that requires you to be barefoot. Take advantage of activities that are already performed barefoot, like yoga, Pilates, or martial arts.

  • Examine your feet for injury. Every day examine the bottom of your feet for injury, as many have reduced sensation in their feet.

More strenuous activities such as barefoot running or hiking with or without minimalist shoes should not be incorporated until you’ve spent adequate time preparing your feet for this type of activity.

If you have pain in your feet after resting or have pain when you walk, you may need to go back to supportive shoes and start slowly again when your feet have healed.

The bottom line

Going barefoot while walking and exercising has some benefits, as long as you follow the safety precautions and participate in moderation, but it is not for everyone.

If you have concerns about your own safety or foot health, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor, podiatrist, osteopath or physio before exposing your bare feet to nature for an extended period of time.

Jane Morris


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