Recently, a lot of attention has been focused on the benefits of going without shoes regularly, especially outdoors. This practice, called “grounding” or “earthing”, not only gives us a renewed connection with the natural world, recent research suggests it offers measurable health benefits.
Obviously, walking around without shoes isn’t practical all (or even most of) the time. Shoes protect us from the elements, from injury, or from plain old grime when we’re out and about—which is much of the time. Besides that, there’s an issue of social convention involved in wearing shoes in public, and none of us can afford to get sidelined by the commercial world’s practically universal “No Shoes, No Service” policy.
What we don’t often hear about, though, are the tradeoffs inherent in our modern, shoe-wearing lifestyle. Our earliest ancestors never wore anything resembling the stiff, hard-soled shoes of today.
As a result, their feet were strong, flexible, and adapted for ideal posture and support of the entire musculoskeletal system. Sure, they probably had some scars and calluses, and no pedicure in the world could have made their feet pretty … but in terms of optimal function, they had it all over us present-day humans, who spend hours and hours in mass-produced footwear that can’t possibly conform to the unique shape of every foot. That’s a best-case scenario, in fact—plenty of people’s everyday shoes are the polar opposite of supportive and ergonomic, like steel-toed boots, flip-flops, wedges, or heels.
Those layers of inflexible, impractical, or simply inadequate material dull the sensation in our feet that helps to coordinate the muscle movements associated with walking, which may lead us to lose muscle strength or to adapt our gait in ways that are detrimental to our joint and muscle health.
All this is to say that grounding is a positive habit to adopt, but there are still times and places where it’s appropriate to “Cage the Bares”.
Start slowly. If you’re normally barefoot while you’re in your own home, you don’t need to change your indoor routine, but limit your outdoor barefoot time to 10-15 minutes to start. As with any other workout, you can overdo it, especially at first. Keep your grounding periods brief and non-strenuous in the beginning to avoid muscle soreness, fatigue, or injury, and call a complete halt if you feel any sharp or prolonged pain.
This may go without saying, but make sure the weather is appropriate for bare feet before you step out each day. Getting frostbite from freezing winter winds or burns on the soles of your feet from hot pavement tends to cancel out the benefits of your grounding routine pretty quickly.
Take advantage of natural light. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the night air, but limited visibility alone is a good reason to avoid doing your regular sessions grounding after dark. Additionally, exposure to sunlight helps improve your mood, boosts your Vitamin D levels, and may help regulate your sleep cycles, all of which would only serve to enhance the other benefits that you already get from grounding.
Safety first. Again, this is probably a no-brainer—but stay away from areas where you’d be likely to encounter hazards like sharp sticks, broken glass, or nails. Always be aware of where you’re putting your feet, not just to avoid stepping on anything painful but also to account for any unevenness or instability. Even if you’re walking in your well-groomed suburban backyard, it never hurts to scan a few feet ahead at all times.
On the flip side, don’t get hung up on the fear of germs. Yes, your feet will probably pick up a little dirt, a layer of sand, or a few leaves on your adventures, but realistically, those same feet harbor and grow a lot more bacteria and general ickiness when they stay encased in sweaty socks and stuffy shoes all day. A generally healthy, clean foot with no open wounds is highly unlikely to suffer any issues from a barefoot stroll on the beach, in the yard, or by the lake.
Harder surfaces don’t necessarily make stronger feet. A more forgiving surface such as soft soil or grass is a superior choice for grounding because it allows the foot a to flex more naturally, freely, and responsively than a hard surface like concrete. These types of surfaces also provide a greater range of physical sensation for the soles of the feet, which can stimulate the nervous system and help your brain “remember” how to interpret the messages it gets from your bare feet and to stimulate the appropriate kinesthetic response.
If you live near the beach or just like to vacation there, sand is a fantastic surface on which to practice grounding. Soft, powdery beach sand cradles the foot and supports the arches, and also shifts in response to your weight, requiring you to engage muscles throughout your entire body to initiate forward motion and maintain your balance. The impact on your joints is also far less than it would be on a harder surface like concrete or packed earth.
Not convinced yet? Take 5 minutes to stand with your bare feet in the grass. Consciously appreciate the fresh air, the warm sunshine, the feel of grass on your skin, and the freedom of unbound movement in your feet. Try to wiggle, stretch, and lift each toe, and then note how each one responds. Allow your feet to stretch and breathe. Before you know it, you might just be hooked!