Barefoot exercise is nothing new. Toddlers love to go barefoot, and dancers often take off their shoes to kick up their heels. However, barefoot runners such as Olympian Zola Budd have brought media attention to shoeless exercise. Exercising without footwear feels liberating and is fine in many cases, but whether barefoot is OK for you depends on the type of exercise and your individual circumstances.
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Types of Exercise
Barefoot exercise is the norm for water sports such as swimming and diving. In addition, many people perform modern dance, Pilates and yoga in bare feet. However, most exercisers wear shoes for protection and stability when lifting weights or taking group aerobics classes. Participants in basketball and other team sports also normally wear special shoes. In North America and Europe, runners usually wear athletic footwear, and barefoot running is controversial in these countries except at the beach.
Claims for Barefoot
In an interview with "Lower Extremity Review," evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman argues that modern running shoes alter an athlete's stride to an unnatural heel-first gait. Wearing shoes all day weakens the feet and arches, but barefoot exercise strengthens the muscles and improve the arches, argues Fred Beaumont of the Institute of Chiropodists and Podiatrists. Other claims for barefoot exercise, especially running, include fewer sprains and injuries of the lower extremities. More research is needed, but Michael Warburton in "Sport Science" says barefoot runners have fewer shin splints and less plantar fasciitis, an inflammation under the heel. Running without shoes also lightens your load and may increase your speed.
Barefoot exercise has its own risks, including cuts, puncture wounds and infections from lack of protection. Other problems include injuries to the heel, foot and knee, as well as osteoarthritis. According to the New York Times, Professor Sarah Ridge of Brigham Young University did a study comparing runners in traditional running footwear to runners wearing one brand of minimalist shoes that simulate being barefoot while offering some protection. Despite starting with short distances and slowly increasing their mileage over 10 weeks, the runners in the minimalist shoe group suffered more bone marrow edema and stress fractures than those wearing traditional running shoes.
Easing into Barefoot
Walking barefoot daily for increasing amounts of time can toughen your feet for truly barefoot exercise. However, podiatrist Emily Splichal recommends minimalist shoes to ease the transition and suggests doing stretches and strengthening exercises, such as picking up marbles with your toes. Some trainers laud minimalist footwear for yoga, water sports, strength training and fitness walking. However, running barefoot is hard on the bones, and Dr. Ridge recommends making the change to minimalist footwear slowly, over more than 10 weeks and keeping your mileage low until your body adjusts. Participants in her study suffered injuries despite starting with 1 to 2 miles daily.
Your individual situation affects whether barefoot exercise is right for you. In Dr. Ridge's study, women suffered the majority of stress fractures. Your ankle strength and flexibility also affect your chances of injury. Podiatry professor Kevin Kirby tells "Lower Extremity Review" that the change to barefoot running is easier for people who went barefoot in their youth. And if you're diabetic, the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons warns against going truly barefoot at all. Ask your physician or podiatrist whether barefoot exercise is advisable for you.