As a recent Healthline report reminds us, when a toddler is learning to walk, parents are encouraged to let this process happen naturally. Without shoes. Says the report, “That’s because shoes can affect how a child uses the muscles and bones in their feet.”
Kids receive feedback from the ground when they walk barefoot, which improves awareness of their body in space. Translating that to adults, it is also noted that advocates of barefoot walking and exercising “are pushing back on wearing shoes all day long and encouraging all of us to let our feet be free.”
“The most straightforward benefit to barefoot walking is that in theory, walking barefoot more closely restores our ‘natural’ walking pattern, also known as our gait,” explains Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, foot and ankle specialist and orthopedic surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute.
I have spent much of my life barefoot. As a kid, there were summers where we barely put on a pair of shoes, our bare feet becoming callused, comfortable and connected — with no cover-up needed. As an adult, you find that there are many healthy activities that are routinely performed barefoot, such as yoga, Pilates and the martial arts. Martial arts are an area I have some history and expertise in.
From early training in tang soo do and judo during my military service in Korea to becoming a six-time undefeated world professional middleweight karate champion and the first man from the Western Hemisphere in the history of tae kwon do to be awarded an eight-degree black belt grand master ranking, training barefoot has enhanced my connection to the earth, which I first learned as a child taking those barefoot steps.
Since its founding in1990, I am proud to say that our Kickstart Kids program has taught “character through karate” to more than 105,000 students. This year, approximately 8,000 students are enrolled in 60 schools across the state of Texas. Black-belt instructors deliver daily in-school instruction, teaching these kids barefoot, on mats, a respect for the history of the martial arts and a new level of sensitivity to the earth they walk on. They develop muscle training in the whole body, including muscles in their feet they might not otherwise use. From the many lessons of this one-of-a-kind, life-changing program, it is fair to say that they will now move ahead in life with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
I bring this up because, according to a recent NPR report, doctors are treating record numbers of stubbed and broken toes as people spend more time shoeless at home during the pandemic. Elizabeth Chang of The Washington Post wrote about having to go see a doctor after stubbing her shoeless toe in NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. Chang said she discovered that “there’s been a pandemic of broken toes.” The cause: spending more time shoeless.
“I was seeing more people in boots than usual,” she adds. “And on one of my appointments to check on my toe, I asked my doctor what he thought. And he said there’s been a pandemic of broken toes.”
According to Dr. Ben Pearl of Arlington Foot and Ankle, the pandemic lockdown has specialists seeing an estimated three times the usual numbers in such injuries. “More people with things like plantar fasciitis, which is an inflammation of the bottom of your feet that can cause horrible arch or heel pain,” reports Chang. She suspects it is also the fact that we are often going around barefoot, or at least shoeless, on extremely hard floors. “And that’s not good for your feet … wear shoes or slippers with an arch support,” she commands as she signs off.
This comes with other media warning about the dangers of going barefoot. “When you head outside, you expose yourself to potential risks that could be dangerous,” says Healthline. “Without appropriate strength in the foot, you are at risk of having poor mechanics of walking, thereby increasing your risk for injury. This is especially important to consider if you are beginning to incorporate barefoot walking after spending much of your life in shoes,” says Kaplan, the foot and ankle specialist.
A pandemic of injuries. Danger awaiting, should you curl your toes in terra firma or plant them on a hardwood floor. Instead of discouraging people from spending time shoeless, we should be doing the opposite. What the NPR report tells me is that a lot of folks have just plumb forgotten how to walk barefoot. They need more practice. And the unintended benefit of being grounded at home? We have the time to relearn what it is like to live barefoot.
As board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon Dr. Bruce Pinker points out to Healthline, the benefits are considerable: Better foot mechanics, which begets improved mechanics of the hips, knees and body core. Stronger leg muscles, supporting the lower back region. And relief from improperly fitting shoes, which may cause bunions or other shoe-caused foot conditions.
Pinker also suggests considering using a minimalist shoe before going completely barefoot. This reminded me of a January 2010 Harvard University report that says, in part, that “(barefoot) runners use the architecture of the foot and leg and some clever Newtonian physics to avoid hurtful and potentially damaging impacts, equivalent to two to three times body weight, that shod heel-strikers repeatedly experience.” Says co-author Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, “Most people today think barefoot running is dangerous and hurts, but actually you can run barefoot on the world’s hardest surfaces without the slightest discomfort and pain. All you need is a few calluses to avoid roughing up the skin of the foot. Further, it might be less injurious than the way some people run in shoes.”
This report set the athletic shoe world scampering to defend their products, which, at the same time, launched a minimalist shoe movement. According to Runner’s World magazine, many people jumped on the trend without proper preparation. “Logging high barefoot mileage without a slow buildup proved a risky way to do it,” they point out. “Many runners have also benefitted immensely from the barefoot approach and have found its methods revitalizing, both physically and mentally.”