We are how we move – the benefits of going barefoot
12 July 2016
Do you experience aches or pains for no apparent reason? Are they brought on by some everyday movement that really should not cause pain? Quite often these pains cannot be attributed to one particular action but rather a long history of poor movement habits and minor injury that have led to bad mechanics in your system. This is often referred to as ‘postural dysfunction’ and it comes about because of poor or lack of movement habits.
As a species we evolved in wild places that required a huge amount of varied movement; even the simple act of walking provided challenges with regards to balance and mobility – and all this simply to survive! Today many of us live in a non-challenging world, from a physical point of view, and in very structured environments that require little effort from us; in fact we could survive without ever having to leave our house.
To move efficiently and healthily we need to regain good joint mobility and strength and get active in a variety of ways. Our body is one piece and moves as such, not as separate parts. Whole body activity is key and central to this is having a healthy, mobile spine. Restrictions in any joint lead to compensation elsewhere, which in turn can lead to injury.
Walking is a basic human movement that involves the entire body; from the smallest foot joints all the way up through to the neck and arms it requires an intricate coordination of movements that we barely think about. Still joints anywhere in the body will have a knock-on effect. Our feet are our main point of contact with the ground and are the real focus of this article. Any problems in the function of your foot, or with the shoes that you wear, can have a knock-on effect on your knees, hips, back and neck – or a combination of these.
The majority of us have grown up in shoes; they protect and support our feet. However, perhaps we should ask why our feet need support when they evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to work perfectly well without it. Protection, yes. The environment we live in with its man-made surfaces and potential dangers is not good for even the most hardy feet. Natural surfaces prove much less of an issue and the soles of many indigenous peoples around the world develop thick, flexible and very sensitive soles that are suitable for walking barefoot all over the forest or wherever their chosen environment happens to be.
Shoes can lead to inflexible, poorly functioning joints and weak muscles, giving a poor foundation for everything above. Our feet actually have an amazing 26 bones – a quarter of all the bones in the body – 33 joints and more than 100 muscles tendons and ligaments. They also have only slightly less density of nerve innervation than our hands! By encasing our feet in shoes we limit the ability of these to work well. Again should we ask why, if the feet were meant to be trapped in casts, are they are so sensitive and why do they allow for such incredible movement?
If you have ever known anyone who has broken a bone, you will probably have noticed that, when they removed the cast, their muscle had atrophied and was weak – this is what has happened to your feet. And shoes are not the only problem; remember our ancestors? Walking on uneven ground and slopes, perhaps climbing trees, all of these slight variations in movement trigger muscle and sensors in the feet which have a whole body effect of stabilisation and balance which challenges our joints. Now however we primarily live in towns with flat surfaces and in buildings with flat floors, we go from sitting to standing and back to sitting throughout most of the day. This only encourages very limited movement, and over time the body adapts and becomes stiff and weak in the areas and muscles it does not use. This ultimately leads to poor movement patterns and changing loads through the body tissue, commonly leading to pain. On top of all this we might also wear a heel, which really does impact on the mechanics of our entire system, leading to further shortening and tightening of muscles.
Walk on the wild side
Now, I’m not suggesting that you throw off your shoes and go everywhere barefoot; this would cause a whole host of problems as our feet and bodies are woefully unprepared for such behaviour. However, a slow and steady approach to increasing the amount of time you spend bare foot, including going barefoot on natural uneven surfaces over the next few years, could help improve strength and mobility in your entire body.
A simple way to start would be with daily stretching of your calves and the front of your shins, mobilising your feet with ankle circles in both directions, and maybe few minutes of walking barefoot on the lawn or in a local park or woodland. Doing this, and gradually reducing the heels you wear, will go some way to helping you keep healthy and improving your body mechanics. There is also emerging research that physically connecting with nature in this way, known as grounding, has positive health effects on your mood and generally how you feel.
Why not try it!