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The Advantages And Drawbacks Of Exercising Barefoot

While attending a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class at the gym, most of us would not even think about participating without any footwear. However, when we’re at home, relaxing barefoot or wearing just socks, it can be tempting to jump right into our workout without putting on shoes. Do we actually need to wear shoes?

There are individuals who argue that exercising barefoot is a beneficial way to strengthen your feet, while others claim it could lead to injuries.

To get to the bottom of this debate, we consulted a physical therapist.

Autumn Hanson, DPT, a physical therapist and the proprietor of PERMISSION2MOVE, highlights that there are numerous factors to take into account before opting to go barefoot, but there are indeed advantages to leaving your sneakers at the door.

Heightened Sensitivity in Our Feet

According to Dr. Hanson, since our feet are in constant contact with the ground, we heavily rely on them for proprioception, the sensory information that helps us understand our body’s position in space.

“Unconsciously, we are consistently collecting data about the ground beneath us, which our feet transmit to our brain,” explains Dr. Hanson. “Our feet inform our brain about our body’s spatial orientation, assisting us in maintaining balance and stability.”

Exercising barefoot enhances this feedback loop. Not only does it prevent us from stumbling, but it also helps in strengthening the 34 muscles in our feet and lower legs.

Encourages Deliberate Movement

Dr. Hanson also mentions that another benefit of working out barefoot is that it compels us to slow down and be mindful of our environment. This mindfulness promotes a sense of calmness and grounding for both the body and mind.

Restores Natural Position of Feet

Dr. Hanson explains, “When our feet are confined within shoes, our muscles perceive the cushioned environment as a signal to relax. The muscle activity in our feet significantly diminishes when we wear shoes with thick padding and pre-formed arches.”

She emphasizes that shoes often control foot motion rather than encouraging muscle engagement, leading to weakened feet being conformed to the shape and posture of the shoe, which is typically different from the natural position of the foot.

“Our toes, once the widest part of our feet, are now squeezed into a narrow toe box, further restricting their function,” she observes. “Aesthetics often overshadow functionality in society, but if we are not cautious about our footwear choices, we may exacerbate foot-related issues.”

This could result in conditions like hammer toes, bunions, pinched nerves, fallen arches, metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuromas, and strained calves, among other muscle imbalances and injuries.

Diminished Protection and Shock Absorption

While there are benefits to working out barefoot, there are also associated risks. “Shoes offer protection to our feet from potential hazards like rocks, glass, and other debris that could harm our feet. They also provide shock absorption for our joints,” states Dr. Hanson. Moreover, they act as a cushion in case an object is accidentally dropped on the foot.

Additionally, when performing exercises with high-impact movements barefoot, it is necessary to reduce speed, lower the intensity of jumps, and rethink the landing strategy. However, utilizing a padded mat or carpet can mitigate these risks.

When to Wear Footwear

Although exercising barefoot may be suitable for some individuals, specific foot conditions, biomechanical problems, and medical issues make it impractical or hazardous.

“For individuals with conditions like plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuroma, walking barefoot can be excruciating, particularly in the morning. Those with reduced sensation in their feet, such as advanced diabetes patients or individuals experiencing complications from herniated discs, should avoid going barefoot,” advises Dr. Hanson. “If the feet are unable to relay feedback from the ground, the risk of injury is significantly amplified.”

Moreover, always wear shoes when exercising on harsh or unsafe surfaces (e.g., scorching pavement).

Important Considerations

Before opting to exercise barefoot, consider the type of workout you will be engaging in. Dr. Hanson suggests that bodyweight exercises are well-suited for being barefoot as they eliminate the risk of weights falling on the toes. “Activities such as Pilates, yoga, and martial arts are typically practiced barefoot,” she adds.

However, if you plan to participate in high-impact activities like HIIT classes, weightlifting, or running without shoes, Dr. Hanson recommends starting gradually.

“If you are accustomed to always wearing shoes, try going barefoot indoors for one to two hours daily. During this time, consciously attempt to spread your toes apart or pick up a towel with your toes,” she recommends. “If you wish to explore outdoor barefoot activities, start by walking in your front or backyard for five to ten minutes. Try grasping the grass with your toes. Feel the texture of the grass under your feet. Enjoy the experience!”

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