Barefoot Exercise

This advice column was written for, published 9 January 2018

Dear Rae, 

I like to try new things and at the moment I am reading a lot about barefoot exercise. It’s warmer outside and I am keen to let my feet breathe while I workout, but are there any real benefits to it or is it just another fad? Can all exercise be done barefoot? Is it just for professionals? Surely there are some risks involved when you can run around the gym with no shoes on?

I wouldn’t recommend running a marathon barefoot straight away, especially if you’ve got foot issues or you’re not used to moving around without shoes, but there are lots of benefits to barefoot exercising. Whether it’s suited to you depends on your starting point and the type of exercise, and as with anything new, remember to start slowly and build up gradually.

There are practical issues to barefoot training in the gym, like the obvious danger of dropping a weight on your foot (if the weight is heavy, shoes probably won’t help much anyway), and hygiene matters.

However, with 26 bones and 33 joints, our feet are meant to move. We also have lots of proprioceptors or sensory receptors on our feet. Foot contact with the floor provides feedback about body position, alignment and movement through these proprioceptors and informs quality of movement, posture and muscle activation through the body.

When our feet are in shoes all day we deprive them of sensory information and movement. Consequently, the brain loses connection with them, the muscles, tendons and ligaments get weak and we lose dexterity.

It gets worse when we continually squeeze our feet into narrow shoes or high heels. Squashing our feet into unnatural positions changes structure, function and movement at both the foot and ankle and affects joint health and posture all the way up the body.

Our bodies were designed to produce force as well as be shock absorbers, however with well cushioned footwear, we’ve trained ourselves out of this function. Just as lifting weights improves strength, we can train ourselves to take more impact through the feet over time.

Test your feet with these simple drills. Stand up and lift your big toe off the floor, leaving the little ones on the floor, and then lift your little toes up and leave your big toe on the floor. Spread all your toes out.

If you can’t do these 3 movements, your brain isn’t talking to the muscles in your feet. It indicates poor circulation to that area, and poor lymphatic drainage – cellular waste accumulates instead of being efficiently removed.

As with any training, it takes time to adjust to barefoot exercise. Start with a barefoot warm up before your workout, walk around barefoot at home, take your shoes off at your desk if you can and practise lifting and scrunching your toes.

Strong healthy feet are perfectly capable of high impact work but don’t jump into it straight away. Start with short periods of time, building slowly.

Barefoot exercise may cause tired and achy feet and lower legs, and this is to be expected when you’re waking up dormant muscles. Be aware of your threshold and stay within it. If your gym doesn’t allow bare feet, get some minimalist shoes like Vibrams, Vivobarefoot or Zem.

Getting out of shoes as much as we can, moving our feet and exposing them to different surfaces and textures wakes up the muscles in the feet and drives sensation back into them, improving posture, gait and overall health.