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shunning-shoesAs featured in Arcare Five Stars Magazine

The barefoot movement is gaining popularity among some health conscious individuals. Some claim it is better for your feet, blaming shoes for a plethora of foot problems from bunions to calluses and blisters. Although going barefoot has been shown to have various benefits for health and fitness, both the pros and cons must be considered before you decide to toss away your shoes.

As we age our bodies start to battle against the force of gravity…women in particular would be familiar with the old pearler ‘everything starts to head south!’ The same thing happens in the feet where the comfortable fat pad that lies under the joints at the base of your toes starts to displace and moves towards the tips of the toes. This causes a couple of things to happen. Firstly, the toes sit up higher than the rest of the foot as they are now propped up by excess cushioning. Secondly, the joints under the ball of the foot have now lost their protective padding and feet commonly become tender or sore after standing, walking or prolonged periods of activity.

Therefore, it is extremely important to protect the ageing foot with shoes that are accommodative of displaced toes for example a shoe with a high depth toe box at the front to ensure the top of the shoe does not run against the toes causing corns or callus as the result of friction. Additionally, wearing sports shoes or walking shoes that have a shock absorbing properties in the sole can improve comfort. Whilst barefoot technology might be all the rage with athletes, this type of footwear is not suitable for active elders.

As a woman, I’m ‘all about the shoes’, namely heels. As a Personal Trainer, I have personally experienced enhanced biomechanical performance via the use of barefoot running technology e.g. wearing Nike Frees on short distance runs and in the gym. As a podiatrist I advocate the use of appropriate footwear in every instance.
Proper fitting shoes do not cause foot problems in healthy individuals, and the use of custom orthotic inserts, designed to offer additional support for fallen arches and weak feet, can greatly improve overall foot health. [1]

The shoe must be specifically designed to accommodate the foot and be appropriate to the activity. For example, the study by Tencer et al (2004) that found shoes could reduce the risk of falls in the elderly stipulated that the shoe must have a low heel and large contact area. In the case of running, shoes with a cushioning support system have been demonstrated to reduce impact and pressure. [2]

However shoes can cause skin problems such as trauma, skin injury, infection and contact dermatitis [3] and damaged shoes can cause foot deformity or injury [4]. It has also been proven that wearing shoes whilst running may reduce performance and can increase the risk of injury [5].

What does the research say?

Benefits of going barefoot

  1. Improper gait and poor balance can be corrected [6]
  2. Weak feet and ankles can be strengthened [7]
  3. May result in lower incidence of osteoarthritis [8]

Benefits of shoes

  1. Provide protection and support
  2. Reduce the incidence of diabetic ulcerations [9]
  3. Reduce the incidence of falls in the elderly [10]

Is going barefoot harmful?

Any type of stability exercises can be done barefoot (with caution) for example balancing on a surfboard or plank. These types of activities promote strengthening of the intrinsic muscles of the feet. Walking around with socks is not recommended as this could be considered a falls hazard. The number one issue with not wearing shoes is the lack of support offered to the foot and any damage that can occur as a result.

Whether it’s appropriate to go barefoot depends on a number of factors including your age and level of health, and in reality there are only a very few situations where it is appropriate.

However, never say never! Barefoot Bowls is increasingly popular and is an extremely popular within the ageing population. This can afford the opportunity to feel the grass (or green turf!) between your toes and also benefits the smaller muscles of the feet, which are responsible for balance. Game on!

[1] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/foot-orthoses[2] Dinato et al, 2013; [3] Al Aboud, 2012; [4] Staheli, 1991; [5] Warburton, 2001; [6] Sternbergh, Adam (April 21, 2008); [7] Angier, Natalie (August 14, 1991); [8] Shakoor N, Block JA (2006); [9] Macfarlane & Jensen, 2003