Beach-goers walking along the side of Del Playa without shoes on is a common sight in Isla Vista. But what about the people who choose to go to lecture without shoes, or athletes who prefer running barefoot? Walking barefoot, nicknamed “earthing,” has become a prominent and sometimes controversial practice in recent years. Are there real health benefits to kicking off your shoes or does it do more harm than good? This is a highly debated question without one sole answer, so read on to find out the pros and cons of walking barefoot and in shoes:
Are there health benefits to walking barefoot?
In theory, walking barefoot mimics the natural walking pattern, or “gait,” of humans. This practice removes the barrier between feet and the ground, which changes the way the foot strikes the ground. Endurance runners who wear shoes typically land on the heel first (rear-foot strike), while barefoot runners often land on the fore-foot before bringing down the heel (fore-foot strike).¹ Running with a fore-foot strike generates smaller collisional forces, and may protect the feet and knees from impact-related injuries. However, it is debated whether this is due to the lack of shoes or better running form.
Walking without shoes can help increase awareness of how your foot strikes the ground and its effect on the rest of your body. Having better control of the strike of your foot and higher levels of body awareness can help with pain relief and improve mechanics of not just the ankle, but also of the knees and hips. The practice of walking barefoot has been shown to improve some knee conditions, such as knee osteoarthritis. Shoes can increase the weight load on lower extremity joints, such as the knee.² People experiencing knee osteoarthritis or joint pain can try walking barefoot to minimize excess loading on their joints.
In addition to these physical benefits, walking barefoot has also been shown to have potential psychological benefits, supporting good mental health. Feelings of nature connectedness, the relationship with our natural surroundings, have long been associated with boosting mood and increasing levels of happiness.³ Similar to the way the color green and blue have been associated with calmness, or the way the smell of flowers or freshly cut grass can be found relaxing, touch is another medium by which we can increase our feelings of connection to nature. Walking barefoot outside have been shown to exhibit higher levels of connectedness and psychological restoration than shoe wearers.⁴
Is there a difference between walking barefoot and walking in toe-shoes?
“Toe-shoes” minimize the amount of padding between your foot and the earth. These shoes can offer more protection for your foot than walking barefoot, but let your foot hit the ground in a way that mimics the natural human gait. In fact, most athletes ran in minimalist shoes until the 1970s, when the modern running shoe with a cushioned heel and stiffened sole became popular. If you’re looking to start the practice of walking barefoot, these shoes may be helpful during the transition from shoes to bare feet. For runners, these may offer more protection from the terrain of the environment than running barefoot.
What are the risks associated with walking barefoot and what precautions can I take?
Walking barefoot outside can be more dangerous than walking barefoot inside. Without protection from shoes, your feet are at higher risk of getting injured from the ground and the environment. This includes sharp items like glass, but there are also risks from the temperature, uneven/wet surfaces, and exposure to harmful bacteria or infections. Fungal or bacterial infections can potentially lead to foot fungus or athlete’s foot. People with diabetes should consult with their physician before walking barefoot due to an increased risk of diabetic foot infection or foot ulcers.⁵
When walking barefoot, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. It can help to be familiar with the terrain before you begin your walk or run. If you begin to feel pain in your heel or during the activity, it may be best to switch to a more supportive shoe or consult with a doctor.
¹ Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W. et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463, 531–535 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08723
² Shakoor, N., & Block, J. A. (2006). Walking barefoot decreases loading on the lower extremity joints in knee osteoarthritis. Arthritis and rheumatism, 54(9), 2923–2927. https://doi.org/10.1002/art.22123
³ Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 976. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
⁴ Sophie C. Rickard, S. C. Rickard, & Mathew P. White, M. P. White. (2021). Barefoot walking, nature connectedness and psychological restoration: the importance of stimulating the sense of touch for feeling closer to the natural world. Landscape research, 46, 975-991. doi: 10.1080/01426397.2021.1928034
⁵ Jayasinghe, S. A., Atukorala, I., Gunethilleke, B., Siriwardena, V., Herath, S. C., & De Abrew, K. (2007). Is walking barefoot a risk factor for diabetic foot disease in developing countries? Rural and Remote Health, 7(2), 1–6. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.500369828794155