Remember playing shoeless in the grass as a kid, or feeling the earth under your feet as you ambled down your favorite path or sat barefoot by a lake or around a campfire? For some of us, those carefree days of foot freedom are but a fond memory. However, there are many reasons why we may want to reconsider kicking off our shoes when we can.
From the simple joy and freedom that our unshod feet may elicit, to increasing strength and balance, connecting with the natural world or the possibility of receiving healing electrons from the Earth, going barefoot may provide us with multiple physical and psychological benefits.
Strength and flexibility
“Why go barefoot? I think a more interesting question is why don’t more people do it!” Ruth Anne Lundeberg said. “Not only does it feel good, but going barefoot makes the feet strong, flexible and intelligent.”
Lundeberg is a master yoga practitioner and has over 25 years of experience as a yoga teacher and trainer. She is also a Pilates instructor, dancer and an avid outdoorswoman.
She maintains that by constantly walking in shoes, particularly highly constructed hiking boots and athletic shoes, we lose important benefits.
“Shoes can certainly protect us, but they can also be very limiting,” she said. “It is like wearing little coffins on your feet all day.”
Lundeberg says that healthy, strong, flexible feet are part of the foundation for good balance and proper movement.
“Your feet are very important. They are the part of the body that you should be working out harder than anything else,” she said. “That is why I work people’s feet very hard.”
Lundeberg says that going barefoot is not only physically good for our feet, but allows us to feel how the mechanics of our feet work.
“You learn to really use your feet and toes well as you move,” she said. “It not only helps with balance, but gives you confidence in how you move, and helps you pick up your feet instead of shuffling.”
Connecting with the natural world
Being aware of our environment and picking up signals from our surroundings is something that wilderness guide, survival instructor, and director of Earthwork Programs Frank Grindrod has been teaching since 1999.
“Being immersed in nature, working with the Earth and being a part of it, is really part of our DNA,” he said.
Grindrod says that our culture has become so disconnected from nature that many of the kids who come to his programs have never taken their shoes off and walked on natural ground.
“For some kids it is so foreign to them that they are just too afraid to do it,” he said.
Grindrod said by slowly reconnecting these kids to the Earth, and allowing them to safely experience the feel of the ground beneath their feet, he is opening a door to the natural world where all of our senses, including the use of our feet, will provide us with important information about our surroundings.
He says that by being prudently shoeless in the outdoors, we can become comfortable in nature, experience the natural world first foot, and also feel a connectedness to the outdoors that breeds confidence, respect and a sort of organic oneness with the Earth.
“To sit around a campfire with our feet on the ground is a really powerful experience,” he said.
Grindrod said that he often hears people say that they are venturing into nature barefoot to “become more grounded.”
“It has become kind of a buzzword now,” he said. “But when you are actually grounded with your feet on the Earth, I think you do begin to have a new ease in your life.”
While it may be a popular buzzword to simply explain becoming more comfortable and clear headed, “grounding” or “Earthing” is actually a practice in which some people engage to improve and/or maintain their health.
Earthing hypothesizes that going barefoot connects us directly with the Earth’s natural surface electrical energy, and that this can help promote better health.
Researchers from the Earthing Institute note that the Earth has a limitless supply of mobile electrons that gives the ground we walk on a natural negative electric charge. They maintain that, modern synthetically-soled shoes, act as insulators preventing us from connecting with this electric field.
Earthing theory holds that direct contact with the Earth through bare feet, restores and stabilizes the bioelectrical circuitry that governs our physiology and organs. This reduces inflammation in the body, which can cause pain and disease, enhances our immune function, and improves both sleep and mood.
Jessica Wall of Boston says that she believes in Earthing and makes a practice of going barefoot outside at least twice a week when the weather permits.
“I don’t have a lot of physical ailments, so I don’t do it to heal any specific problem,” she said. “I do it to stay healthy, connect, ground and get centered.”
Wall said that she notices a clear difference in her piece of mind, improved clarity of thought and a reduction in her stress levels.
Well before the proposition of any Earthing theory, Wall says she just knew that going barefoot improved the way she felt.
“As a kid I always enjoyed going barefoot and hiking moderate trails in bare feet,” she said. “As I got into my late teens and had to wear shoes, I was a pretty miserable person and any chance I got I would go barefoot!”
Today Wall has a 13 month-old daughter who she says recently got her first pair of shoes.
“I am still making a conscious effort for her to experience everything in bare feet,” she said.
Electrons, nature, and strength aside
For many of us the urge to go bare foot may just be motivated by the fact that it feels so good and brings us joy, which in itself improves our quality of life.
“It feels good and I just don’t like wearing shoes!” Local musician Jim Armenti said. “I don’t want big stiff things with tractor treads on my feet, I would rather feel the ground.”
“Oh yes, I have had all sorts of foot injuries over the years, that’s part of life, but I still don’t feel like my feet need to be that defended all the time.”
Whether you choose to go barefoot just for the fun of it, be more closely connected to nature, strengthen your feet or receive a healing electrical benefit from the Earth itself, it is always wise to be aware of what may be in your path to prevent any injuries.
Should you hurt your feet while walking barefoot, it is advisable to get medical attention as soon as possible. Those with physical issues like diabetes, may not want to risk a foot injury by going completely barefoot as this could result in serious complications.
For folks who want to feel the ground as much as they can without being entirely barefoot, a “five finger shoe” may be the answer.
“The benefits of going barefoot are very obvious to me and I do it all the time,” Lundeberg said. When I am hiking, I wear the five finger shoes because you can still feel everything.”
Barefoot or barely shod, tread safely o there.
Fran Ryan is a freelance writer living in Easthampton.