Barefoot is Best!

In the fifth century BCE, Socrates walked around Athens barefoot, followed by a crowd of shoeless disciples. Brilliant in his exploration and foundation of the early principles of philosophy, was he also onto a fundamental principle of physical health? Based on alarming increases in injuries related to shoes, perhaps he was right—walking barefoot is beneficial.

Picture Socrates in a pair of Nikes. With every step, the unnatural support of the shoes, while seemingly comfortable, prevents certain muscles in his lower legs from working as they should. Unable to roll through the foot as he walks, his calf, ankle and toe muscles  become weak, resulting in foot conditions like flat-footedness and hammertoe. Instead of naturally landing on the ball of his foot as he walks, he lands on his heel. This unnatural gait leads to knee, hip and back problems. In addition, the thick-soles of his Nikes distort this great philosopher’s perspective of the distance of his foot relative to the ground, leading to a greatly increased chance of sprains and other injuries caused by missteps. In addition, the shoes keep his feet in a constant, unchanging temperature and the high concentration of nerve endings on the bottom of his foot are stimulated less, making him more prone to viruses. In the end we see an unhappy, physically compromised, pained philosopher, perhaps eager to drink the hemlock.

Until his unjust trial and subsequent demise, Socrates lived a healthy life.  With every shoeless step he activated the many muscles in his foot, free to function naturally without the constraint of shoes. That strength in his legs improved his agility and flexibility. His back did not have to compensate for an improper gait, allowing for correct posture. Barefoot, he could sense the various textures under his feet, allowing the nerves of his feet to be stimulated and increasing his blood flow.  In a sense, Socrates was grounded in how the world felt, literally, and not only what it looked like or appeared to be. Who knows what philosophical insights might have come from that?

In today’s world our female celebrities walk in stiletto heels. Our politicians would deign to appear at a rally… barefoot. We have been taught that exposed feet are considered uncivilized and unsanitary. But, why not be rebels? Why not walk barefoot at home instead of shielding our feet in slippers? Why not throw off our sandals in the park and treat our feet to the delights of the grass? Or why not invest in a pair of so-called “minimalist” shoes (sneakers which resemble gloves for the feet) for running? The benefits of doing so override any reservation.

And on the subject of minimalist running shoes, Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biology professor at Harvard, and subject of a NY Times article by Claudia Dreifus (Aug.23, 2011) has studied running and runners. His contention is that runners in shoes most often land hard on their heels. This causes a shockwave that travels up the leg and eventually to the head. When he first observed a barefoot runner, he saw that he landed on the ball of his foot, causing no shock wave to hit his head. Going to Africa to observe people who never wear shoes, he noticed that when they run they run in a ‘lighter, gentler way because it would hurt to run the way people do in their shoes.’ Dr. Lieberman, himself, runs either barefoot when the weather allows, or in a ‘minimal shoe.’

The reality for most of us is that we can’t be barefoot all the time. We have to go to work, in subways, buses, automobiles. We have to walk on dirty street pavement. We are not allowed in supermarkets without shoes, much less restaurants:  “No shoes, no shirt, no service!”  So here are some exercises to do, in your shoes, and also once you are free to take them off.

  • When you are sitting, try to move your toes inside your shoes.
  • Try lifting your heel and putting it down. And then do the same with your toes. (Classical musicians often keep time with their toes; jazz musicians with their heels…good for the musicians but not aesthetically pleasing to the audience.)
  • Make circles with your feet.
  • Try writing numbers with your big toe. (best if your shoe is off)
  • Stretch your leg and point your toes toward your knee.
  • When you have to stand for long periods, try to feel as if the soles of your feet are grounded to the floor. After 20 seconds slowly shift your weight to your toes and back. Repeat five or six times. Then try to shift the weight to your heels without lifting your toes. Finally, try to rise up on your toes, slowly and carefully, ankles staying straight. Repeat five or six times. Then rock back on your heels, slowly, watching your balance.
  • Once at home, and able to remove your shoes, lie down on the floor and move close to a wall. Bend your knees so your feet are against the wall and your body and knees are at a 90 degree angle. Slowly slide your feet up and down the wall. Then try to scratch the wall with your toes. Toes are supposed to have the ability to move. Being in shoes inhibits toe movement so we must give them that option when we are barefoot. You can also give your toes this little workout if you are on the grass, at the beach or even walking on small stones. But be careful not to damage your foot. Always go gently and slowly
  • Finally we need to always remember to walk barefoot as horses and other animals do. Relax your ankles. Don’t try to put your heel first and then the rest of your foot. The foot is supposed to be flat, which avoids tension.

We need to be without our shoes as much as possible to strengthen our feet and to keep them relaxed and flexible. They support us in everything we do. So, let’s treat them with respect and kindness. We can use Socrates words as our guide: “It is not living that matters, but living rightly.” And living ‘rightly’ means going barefoot as often as we can!