There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that walking and running barefoot can actually reverse some of the damage done to your feet by footwear. Specifically, several podiatrists and scientists have reported a rise in arch height due to walking and/or running barefoot (or in minimalist shoes). In this post I review the observations that have been made by others and add my own data to the mix.
Back in 2011, Dr. Nirenberg reported on his blog (www.americaspodiatrist.com) that he was seeing foot arches rise in a patient as a result of barefoot running. The 41-year old male had worn conventional shoes prior to making the switch to running barefoot. He also ditched his shoes for most daily activities and adopted a largely barefoot lifestyle. Dr. Nirenberg captured a stunning set of footprints that document the changes to his feet.
More recently, Dr. Nick Campitelli reported a similar finding on his blog. His two-year study demonstrates dramatic changes in the arch height and ankle-foot alignment of a 34-year old woman after she switched to minimalist shoes for running. Going minimalist not only raised her arches and aligned her foot and ankle bones, but it alleviated her knee pain.
In my own study, I’ve been observing a 48-year old male transition from typical shoe use to barefoot living – both for running and walking during his daily routine. At work, this individual switched to using minimalist shoes. Although he stated he had flat feet “all his life”, his feet began to change after adopting a barefoot lifestyle. Below are the footprints I acquired from this individual over a 4 ½ year period beginning with his adoption of a barefoot lifestyle in 2009.
There are several published methods to quantify arch heights, but several years ago I devised my own method called the transverse arch index (TAI). A TAI value less than 1 indicates a high arch while a TAI value greater than 1 indicates a low arch. After switching to a barefoot lifestyle, this individual’s TAI value decreased a staggering 81% from 5.2 (a very low arch) at the start of the study to 1.0 (average arch) four years later. Much of the change occurred in the first 2 ½ years.
In my opinion, and I believe Drs. Nirenberg and Campitelli would agree, shoes are casts that immobilize the foot and weaken the musculature and ligaments of the foot. Because those muscles and ligaments support the arch and properly align the 52 bones in the feet and ankles, some have speculated that the overuse of shoes – especially during exercise that involves walking or running – is a major source of many of the ailments that plague our feet. Indeed, footwear is likely responsible for more than flat feet and fallen arches, they have been implicated as a major contributor to bunions, Hallux valgus, plantar fasciitis, neuropathy, athlete’s foot, toenail fungus, ingrown toenails, and hammer toes.
Personally, I believe that simply eschewing the shoe and walking barefoot is the single best thing you can do for the health of your feet. Heretofore, that opinion was based mainly on the premise that the human foot is designed well for its functions and that man-made footwear, while useful in some situations, is largely disruptive and impedes those functions. Happily, we are now acquiring a growing body of empirical evidence that validates that opinion, such as the results presented in these three case studies.
I think it’s important to recognize two realities: 1) we typically wear shoes for cultural reasons, not physical or biomechanical reasons, often even when we think otherwise. And 2) shoes often do more harm than good to our feet. Once you become fully aware of those two points, the solution to our foot woes becomes obvious: remove the shoes and go barefoot much more often. Fortunately, more and more people are connecting the dots and kicking off their shoes in response. Going barefoot in public is becoming more common as people realize the damage that shoes can cause our feet and the healthy benefits of leaving them at home. Furthermore, going barefoot is quickly being recognized as just another individual lifestyle choice in our increasingly diverse society. So, do your feet a favor, take off your shoes and walk barefoot! Not only does it feel good, it’s good for you. And there’s science to back that up!
Daniel Howell, Ph.D.
PS. In addition to these studies, I am aware through personal communication of other studies by top-notch scientists which make the same general conclusions, but they have not at this time publicly announced their findings.