Monday, April 21, 2014

From Opinion To Observation: More Evidence That Going Barefoot Is Best For Your Feet

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. 

6 comments:

  1. It's been sooo long since your last blog post! I was beginning to wonder if you were even still alive! Anyways, I'm a big fan of Barefooting, and I'm really thankful for your book and blog posts which help me to explain why I go Barefoot.

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  2. Oh my goodness I have questions!!! HOW does one start this transition? How open does your average Orthopedic tend to be to this way of thinking? Does wearing "not much to them" shoes help with this?

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    1. Getting started is much easier than you think, it all comes down to taking off your shoes! Seriously, the biggest hurdle to going barefoot more often is cultural, not physical. The skin on your feet toughen up in a matter of weeks, the muscles get stronger over a few months, and the bones will strengthen over a few years, but you will never stop hearing comments from friends and strangers about walking around barefoot. :) As for foot doctors, the vast majority still hold the worldview that shoes are necessities, but more and more are seeing the light in recent years. (BTW, podiatry is the only branch of medicine that considers a healthy body part - the foot - to be insufficient for its function without human intervention). There is in increasing number of barefoot-friendly podiatrists these days. And yes, wearing "minimalist" shoes are better than traditional shoes, but going barefoot is still best for a variety of reasons. Buyer beware: because of the growing barefoot fad, many shoes are marketed as "minimalist" when they are not at all. A true minimalist shoe has minimal impact on foot anatomy and biomechanics. PS. One of the best things to do barefoot is GARDEN!

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  3. As a life long Naturist I have always been an advocate of all over bareness... up until age 20 or so when I started working in a full time job I was always barefoot (and bare bummed in appropriate settings ;) ) my feet had developed a very hard calloused protective barrier as well as my skin being tanned nicely....however as I don't live in a Naturist park I have to wear clothes/shoes in the world so my feet lost the toughness that allowed me to be able to walk for hours over concrete paths/roads & hopping rocks etc in the creek beds on my bushwalks.

    Now age 47 I have been slowly getting back into barefoot walking... over the past 3 or more years I have been doing a bushwalk/jog during my one hour work lunchbreak, I started out wearing light hiking sandals but in the last three months I have been going barefoot, the track I jog along consists of several large logs to leap over & several quite rough sections with tree roots and also rock shelf sections ending in a creek where I go for a quick dip (very refreshing even in Winter as I'm very sweaty)

    My feet are starting to get tougher with a good hard callous building up, although I have had quite a few instances of injury with broken toenails (ouch) and yesterday I stubbed my big toe on a rock which resulted in a deep cut on the top!

    My wife thinks I'm mad... I have no idea why? LOL

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    1. There are psychological/spiritual benefits to going barefoot as well. Walking and running barefoot encourages mindfulness as it is a kind of meditation - although reading your post it sounds as if you have somewhere to go on this!

      While the skin of your feet should get thicker and tougher, you should not be developing hard calluses, as these are liable to cracking (I have one now...) and injury should be rare. All the nerves in your feet should be giving you plenty of feedback and telling you when to go a bit more steadily.

      With plenty of practice, you should find your self able to pick your way carefully, avoiding stubbing toes on tree roots and rocks by scanning ahead and using peripheral vision for the ground closer to you, with just occasional glances down.

      I agree with you choice of clothing - we wear shoes and clothes largely for cultural reasons, and much of the time we are better off without when possible.

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  4. I work at a job that requires both heavy work boots and leather gloves. Of course, gloves are only required part of the time. It's amazing to me that it is nearly a universal phenomenon in 18 years of employment with this company that at the very first opportunity that presents itself when gloves are no longer required of workers, gloves come off. I have only rarely ever seen anyone leave their gloves on more than 30 seconds after they can "legally" take them off. People hate gloves and having their hands covered. Yet when someone like me shows or verbalizes the same objection to having to wear shoes and wants to remove them the instant we are able, people look at you funny.

    It always amazes me how people view bare feet versus bare hands. I was walking barefoot in a hotel lobby recently and someone I knew said "eww" when he noticed my bare feet. Yet, going around putting my bare hands on food service trays that had been handled by fifty other hotel guests is not even a thought to anyone. I probably came in contact with twice as many germs through my bare hands than I did through my bare feet.

    Anyway, I'll try to digress from the rant and keep it to the point as asked. I will share this anecdote. I used to live in Lake Havasu City, a very hot climate in the summer. One day in the middle of summer I met a barefooter at the park, mid day, temperature well over 100, in his bare feet. Even I wasn't that daring, wearing my super thin soled flip flops instead. I asked him if the concrete burned his feet and he said "not really," and then explained to me he was a barefooter and went barefoot all the time. I had to slip off my sandals and try, but my feet were still too tender from constant sandal wearing (in Arizona sandals are acceptable in nearly every situation, although bare feet aren't). Just goes to show you that the mockers out there who mock barefooters for such situations are just ignorant. That day taught me that feet are designed to be weather resistant!

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Welcome to The Barefoot Professor blog, intelligent talk about running, walking and living barefoot. I encourage your comments, even if you disagree with me. In this spirit I don't even moderate the comments. However, PLEASE use critical thinking skills when leaving comments, and avoid inflammatory words. Please keep your comments short and to-the-point. THANKS.