May 20, 2012

Going Barefoot: It is Good to Touch the Ground. ~ John Whipple

Rankle society by forgetting your shoes.

We Americans do love our shoes. Perhaps we love them too much. We have shoes for every occasion. We even have shoes for occasions that shoes are completely unnecessary for. There are even special socks for yoga.

I wonder at those I see walking across a beach on a perfectly beautiful day in their shoes and socks as I blissfully wade barefoot in the surf. Some people seem to be afraid to touch the ground even when it is so inviting. I just don’t get it.

If you ever feel the need to rankle society you don’t need to dye your hair blue, get a tattoo or pierce your eyebrows. In fact, none of those things even raise eyebrows anymore, but if you really want a reaction all you have to do go into town without shoes. That will get you all the attention you could ever want and maybe more.

Restaurants will tell you that you are violating the health code. Store-keepers will tell you it is a liability issue. Some people might go out of their way to inform you how dangerous it is to be barefoot. They will likely tell you that you are spreading disease. They might even inform you that it is illegal to drive that way.

None of that is true. There are no health codes that require customers wear shoes in places that serve or sell food. It is not illegal or even unsafe to drive barefoot. The Society for Barefoot Living, an internet group for people who hate wearing shoes, have taken it upon itself to bust these myths.

There seems to be no precedent for the liability argument either. You would be hard pressed to find a lawsuit brought against a property owner by someone who hurt themselves because they were barefoot and there is good reason to doubt it would be successful in the first place.

Bare feet don’t spread disease and there is nothing hazardous about being barefoot around food. If you thought about it you would realize that billions of people prepare and eat food in their bare feet every single day. Somehow the CDC hasn’t brought this up as a major health issue.

So why all the hostility when bare feet are seen in public? Maybe it is a holdover from the counter culture movements of the 1960s. People wanted to keep those dirty barefoot hippies out of their burger joints. Maybe it goes back to our Victorian or even Puritanical past. We don’t want to see naked feet in public!

But, then again, flip-flops are somehow acceptable everywhere now. Perhaps it has something to do with our often-obsessive mysophobia, also known as germaphobia. We douse our living spaces with sanitizers and disinfectants. We make sure our hand wash soap is “anti-bacterial.”

Some people act as if they are astronauts on a hostile planet rather than a native species. They see the Earth as “dirty” and something we should never touch, as if we are not creatures of the Earth but, somehow, above it.

Whatever the reasons behind the hostility, bare feet research would suggest there are more reasons to fear your shoes than touching the ground. Our shoe obsession can lead to a host of maladies. Dr. Phil Hoffman declared in the last century “Foot gear is the enemy of the human foot.”

Dr. Daniel Howell, author of The Barefoot Book, points out that shoes are the major cause of fallen arches, bunions, fungal infections like athlete’s foot, knee arthritis and corns. Shoes distort, soften and weaken the human foot, and if you really are afraid of germs and the like, then the last place you would want to walk into are your shoes.

Besides, it is okay to escape from your foot coffins and touch the ground. It is actually good for you.

It has been suggested that a stimulating barefoot walk has a multitude of benefits from relieving stress, increasing balance, helping your brain to help you get a good night’s sleep. Research is only just beginning but the consensus seems pretty clear. Taking off your shoes not only feels good. It is good for you.

It is not surprising that walking barefoot would strengthen the multitude of tendons and muscles in your feet and lower legs. Shoes are just like casts and just like when you wear a cast for a long time certain muscles are neglected and weaken.

It seems pretty clear that any fitness regiment should include performing some strength and balance exercises barefoot. One of the most counter-intuitive innovations in exercise is the emerging barefoot running movement.

It is estimated that up to 80% of runners get injured every year. To find out why author Christopher McDougall studied the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who run extraordinary distances and suffer far fewer injuries than the rest of us.

Their secret, he suspects, is what the Tarahumara don’t have: running shoes. Running shoes, with their cushioned heels to soften the impact, encourage terrible running form which creates greater wear on the runner overall. The solution?

Lose the shoes.

Even though I have never cared for shoes, I was very skeptical at first about running without them. I had dropped over a hundred bucks on some high tech footwear only to be plagued by shin splints and knee pain after about two miles.

I finally ditched the shoes and after my calves exploded adjusting to their new role I was able to regularly run over ten miles at which point I had to stop because I was, well…


There are other benefits of going out for a walk barefoot that are not so obvious. No doubt getting those shoes after a long day is a great relief. It is like flipping a natural switch in your body going from combat mode to peace mode.

It seems reasonable that being barefoot helps you relax and research seems to back that up. One study found that walking on river stones was an effective way to lower blood pressure.

The study is unclear why walking barefoot over smooth stones would reduce blood pressure more than walking around in shoes. Perhaps the stones act as a gentle massage. Perhaps it just feels good.

A leading researcher in the emerging field of neuroplasticity, Dr. Michael Mezernich, believes that people need to take stimulating barefoot walks to keep the all the neural connections from the feet to the brain active.

He suspects that a lot of the stability issues older people develop can be traced to their overuse of shoes. Your feet have several thousand nerve endings that you rely on to get a sense of the ground you are standing on.

This proprioception, as it is called, is essential for balance and Dr. Mezernich believes if that stimulus from your feet is consistently muted your brain might pull the plug on some of that information and allocate its resources elsewhere. Keeping the brain stimulated is essential for mental clarity as well and taking a walk in your bare feet is a great way to do just that.

The idea that taking a barefoot walk outside is healthy is not lost on everyone. In Germany and elsewhere there are “barefoot parks” designed to be safe and stimulating for walking without shoes.

The website for one such “barfuss park,” claims that walking barefoot can alleviate back trouble, prevent varicose veins, athlete’s foot and even the common cold.

Contrary to popular belief it is very likely that wearing shoes is actually the dirty and unhealthy habit and going barefoot is good for you. Of course, shoes are sometimes useful to protect your feet from truly hostile elements and extreme weather but as we head into summer chances are that the elements are not so hostile.

Next time you head towards a nicely maintained park or even wander down a trail through the woods remember the ground is not out to get you. It’s okay. You can touch it. You know you want to. It is a great idea too.

Full disclosure:

As anyone who knows me personally will tell you, I avoid putting on my shoes whenever possible (which is pretty much all the time) so there is no denying I am somewhat biased. During an interview on PCTV in Park City Utah  I explained that I needed to maintain a grip on the ground otherwise all the crazy ideas in my head might carry me off the planet.

I was joking, of course, but I was also getting at a larger truth. As a creature of this earth, I want to experience life as fully as possible. For me, putting on shoes is like throwing a pillow over one speaker of a stereo.

Shoes make me feel dislocated and awkward. Sure, you are still getting all that information from the senses in your head, but you are completely muffling your experience of the ground. That is unacceptable to me. I desire a full experience of the spaces I inhabit. I believe I am here to experience the world and I am not afraid to touch.







John Whipple is a barefoot vagabond musician, artist and writer based out of a Toyota pickup and wherever it is parked. His website can be found at http://barefootjohn.com. Email him at [email protected].


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Editor: Mel Squarey

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