Our feet have the ability to communicate a great deal of vital information, not just about the world around us but also about our own bodies and how we navigate through space. But it’s hard to hear what they have to say when they are shoved into shoes most of the day.
Feet have more nerve endings per square centimeter than nearly any other part of the body. Their job is to gauge the grade, slope, texture, and temperature of the earth below our feet. This information is then rapidly communicated to our brains to help us respond in a way that assists in how we walk and keeps us standing upright.
But with shoes interfering, we might be getting dulled or muted messages, and limiting the body’s ability to heal. Those are a couple of reasons Susan Milton, 54, ditched her shoes for a full-time barefoot lifestyle a decade ago. On the very rare occasion when she wears shoes now, the lack of sensation on her soles feels foreign.
“I really value that extra input in my environment,” she said. “It’s more information coming in about what my surroundings are. I just really enjoy it. It makes what I’m doing a richer experience. It’s amazing.”
For some Americans, it’s offensive—and perhaps even crass—to be in public places without shoes. And yet research is increasingly clear that most footwear options are damaging our feet, and by extension, our bodies, by putting too much burden on the lower joints.
Most shoes are elaborately designed to absorb shock but they also dull sensations. Going barefoot—at least part of the day and learning how to nourish the nerves of the feet—can help anyone with or without foot injuries support natural foot function. But for those with existing foot problems, starting slow may be vital to avoid additional pain.
Why Surfaces Matter
Knowing about vibration and its usefulness to our feet, in addition to the ways it can be harmful, can optimize how we approach movement. Key considerations are the surfaces that we move on, what we are doing, previous injuries, and the state of our feet.
Shoe cushioning can be important to alleviate the vibration—periodic back-and-forth motion of particles—from artificial surfaces like concrete, marble, and tile. These surfaces offer less springiness than natural surfaces such as dirt and wood. That makes them harder on the body.
Vibration is how feet perceive impact force and determine how hard to strike the ground. Shoes fulfill their purpose to absorb shock and sudden or harsh vibrations, but they don’t distinguish between surfaces, leaving all vibrations dampened.
“For the most part, people need vibration and if you’re taking away all of the vibration and you’re never inducing a vibration stimulation to the nervous system, your feet are inherently getting weaker and weaker,” Dr. Emily Spilchal, functional podiatrist, told The Epoch Times.
Worn with intention, shoe cushioning can be beneficial, Spilchal said. Strenuous activities repetitively done on hard surfaces may require support to avoid shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Those who are recovering from an injury may also find it painful to go barefoot or in minimal shoes for extended periods of time.
For others, however, minimal shoes offer a useful step towards walking barefoot.
“The lack of cushion in minimal shoes is allowing the vibration to transmit into the foot to stimulate foot muscle contractions and to stimulate the nerves in the feet and therefore bring back natural foot function,” Spilchal said.
Generally speaking, it is healthier to experience vibration from all surfaces because it builds bone density, strengthens foot muscles, improves balance, and increases circulation. While many activities might seem odd done barefoot, it’s not unusual for yoga and dancing to be done shoeless.
For those who cannot go barefoot or want to accelerate healing, Spilchal uses a vibration platform called Power Plate. Tiny vibrations are sent through the feet to activate muscles, improve circulation, and assist in recovery.
Part of Our Sensory System
Feet are part of the body’s somatosensory system, which conveys information about the state of the body to the brain. The neural network in this system decodes data that allows us to experience texture discrimination, object recognition, and temperature discernment, as well as understand the relationship of our body in space, called proprioception. Most of the time, the input from our feet is the only part of our nervous system that keeps us upright.
This complicated system relies on mechanoreceptors, nerves in the bottom of the feet (they’re also in palms) that live between the dermis and epidermis, as well as deeper within the dermis.
“These nerves are very important to movement and balance, how we stand statically without falling over, but then how we move dynamically and are able to transfer energy and release high amounts of power,” Spilchal said. “This stuff is fascinating, and it’s very beneficial. It helps the lay person understand their body more.”
These tiny building blocks of the nervous system pick up messages and send that information to the thalamus, a part of the brain responsible for interpretation that also discerns all other sensory information except smell. The thalamus relays messages of pain and touch in a layered process that then allows us to instantaneously process and integrate it in a way that dictates our ongoing voluntary behavior.
Without mechanoreceptors in our feet, our bodies wouldn’t have the ability to react to pain, pressure, and temperature. They offer vital information to our brain about the location, duration, and intensity of the stimulus, including the surfaces we stand and move on.
This feedback loop largely functions without much regard until it is disturbed. It can become impaired due to injury, age, or disease. This is where recovery comes into play, which might involve strategies, products, or practices to improve standing balance. Others may choose to nurture this highly sensitive system at the first sign of disruption to prevent damage.
Healing Your Feet
No matter the approach to foot care, going barefoot more often—potentially as much as possible—appears to offer the most benefits, not just for the feet but the entire body.
Milton’s interest grew when she went backpacking with a friend who was barefoot the entire hike. Milton had knee pain on and off for decades and different approaches and diverse shoes didn’t offer relief.
“I just took off my shoes when we got back to the campsite and really loved it,” she said. “It absolutely did feel better on my body. The pain went away.”
It’s not strictly anecdotal. A study showing shoes are burdensome on joints was published in 2006 in Arthritis and Rheumatology. Shoes might be the cause of some osteoarthritis cases, which is why the subject warrants additional research.
Besides improving the functionality of feet, there’s evidence that barefoot walking allows the human body to connect with electrons in the earth, and that can promote physiological changes like less pain and better sleep. Called earthing or grounding, research published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Environmental and Public Health suggests this practice could be equated to sunshine, clean air, water, nutrition, and physical activity as an essential part of human wellness.
Trail running or hiking on paths with a lot of irregular surfaces, either barefoot or in minimalist shoes, is also a good practice, Spilchal said. The variability in surfaces and stimuli is exercise for both the feet and the brain.
“That requires you to pay attention,” she said. “One of the greatest benefits I’ve seen in research of trail running in minimal shoes … is a cognitive increase post trail run. It forces you to be present.”
You might even consider going barefoot on a treadmill. In a study of balance recovery for seniors published in November 2022, in BMC Geriatrics, those whose therapy was done barefoot (versus the group with shoes) created a more stable gait.
Nerves can be stimulated either barefoot or by wearing shoes with textured insoles. Spilchal said the products matter, though, as the actual textures must be spaced appropriately to activate the mechanoreceptors, otherwise, they may feel like just one blob.
“This is not just an arbitrary textured pattern. People assume anything bumpy is texture,” she said. “It’s not just little nubs creating this effect on the nervous system.”
The enjoyment of texture is part of the addictive nature of barefoot walking, according to Milton, who heads up the Barefoot Alliance, an organization that educates and supports people living a barefoot lifestyle.
Many members will go barefoot year-round, even in the cold and snow. In fact, winter may be the ideal time to kick off shoes a bit more often as lower temperatures cause tissue contraction and lead to joint pain and inflexibility, as well as constricting blood circulation. When the temperature is below 45 degrees, Milton often puts on wool socks.
What took the most adjustment, she said, was undoing a long habit of putting on shoes before she walked out the door. But reinforcing to herself that shoes are cumbersome and not really that amazing helped Milton make the shift. It’s become so natural that the only time she thinks about it is if she has to wear shoes and misses the sensory input going barefoot offers.
“It’s another sense like seeing and hearing. I’m touching everything all the time. It’s really important to me,” Milton said. “Once you do it, it’s pretty enjoyable.”