By Nancy Alexander, PT, CSCS
There is some truth to the joke that you should worry about Floridians when it gets cold out because we don’t own shoes. We rarely wear them. Most of the time it’s hot and wearing shoes just makes us hotter. Since moving here three years ago, I spend more and more time barefoot, or in flip-flops or sandals. If I wear shoes to go out somewhere or to bike or play pickleball, I take them off right away when I return home. They feel restricting to me. And yes, they make me hot. Turns out, I may be benefitting from being barefoot more.
According to Angie Ferguson, an exercise physiologist from Fort Myers, Florida, “As we age, we tend to rely more on footwear, to the point where our feet become weak and our movements are inhibited.” She adds that when we become reliant on shoes, we lose some basic motor patterns and movement skills essential for good health and well-being. The good news is that we can get those skills back with training and improve our mobility as a result. Introducing barefoot training into your routine is one way to get them back.
Consider the following 6 reasons to kick off your shoes for at least part of your exercise routine. Barefoot training:
- Forces the muscles and joints to work more which is beneficial for keeping the feet strong, toes aligned and joints mobile. This can help improve your foot posture.
- Strengthens the connective tissue and muscles in your feet leading to improved stability and balance. When you take your shoes off, your feet have to work harder to maintain balance.
- Increases proprioception, or position sense. When barefoot, your feet have direct contact with the floor or ground, allowing you to feel every movement and adjust your position accordingly. This improves body awareness and coordination.
- Improves the strength of your lower leg. There are shared muscles, or what are called extrinsic muscles, at both your feet and lower leg. When barefoot, you help improve the strength of these muscles which improves the function of your lower leg. Which, in turn, benefits the whole leg.
- Because of the strength benefit, you can improve overall performance which is especially important for walking and running.
- Improved posture, coordination, strength, and balance at your feet helps reduce your risk of injury. This aids in fall prevention as well.
I teach four fitness classes per week most of the year, and during each one I am barefoot. I enjoy being barefoot. Keep in mind there are reasons you might need shoes on for your safety and comfort. For example, if you have significant foot arthritis or postural deviations at your feet, the support may be necessary for you to reduce pain. You may have a previous injury or surgery that compromises your foot posture, flexibility, or strength. A shoe would be very beneficial for the support it gives you. Maybe you’re just cold. I hardly ever walked around barefoot when I lived in New York, not even in the summer. I never really gave it a thought or consideration.
With my new heightened awareness of the benefits of being barefoot, I can’t help but think of all the teaching I do for balance training. Being barefoot during balance training helps improve performance. Why? By going barefoot, there are no layers between you and the floor. Your feet and leg muscles can send signals to your brain faster and more reliably which improves your movement. Specifically, it is proprioception that is improved as noted above. When you know where a body part is in space, you can reliably know your position. More importantly, you will more reliably know when it is not where it should be and thus, make a timely correction to save you from losing your balance and possibly falling. Yes, this matters greatly.
With training you can improve your proprioception and improve your balance. And you can do this at any age. You can also improve your strength at any age. Strength and balance often go hand in hand to allow you to function, to live a life. Think of the simple act of standing from a sitting position. You need strength in your big major muscle groups including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles to successfully perform this. And you need good balance as you change your support from your buttocks on a chair, to your feet on the floor.
A simple activity to start with is marching in place on a hard floor in your home. Perform this next to your kitchen counter for a touch-down surface for your safety. Start at your normal walking speed and gradually slow it down. Slowing it will challenge you more because you will be standing on one leg longer. This type of exercise is excellent at improving proprioception that we discussed earlier. By the way, you are also strengthening your legs, too. I love this added benefit.
Wondering how you can get started? Consult with your physician first to see if this type of training is appropriate for you. Visit with a movement specialist for specific ideas that address your own unique needs. With guidance, start with maybe one or two activities and see how you feel during and even after you’ve completed them. If successful, gradually challenge yourself and increase the duration of your workouts.
If barefoot training is appealing to you and if your health allows it, consider adding some barefoot exercises to your routine. With consistent practice, the sooner you are more likely to benefit from the results such as improved walking, balance, and safety. Keep moving friends.