I’ve asked one of the most popular guest writers on Fit For Real Life to come back! You guys loved her article on the foot’s fatty padding, now please enjoy Jessi Stensland’s newest article! Over to Jessi who teamed up with Stephanie Welch, humanist and ancestral health advocate, for this one…
“Because my feet, and my body, love it!”
I tell people when they ask about my bare feet on the grass, in the garden, on the trail, walking down the sidewalk or on other terrain. “Yes, but WHY is it good for you?” they inquire. Below, we tackle the question and shed some light on the beauty and whole-body benefits of taking off your shoes more often — or, better yet, not putting them on in the first place.
Taking a more foot-friendly approach to real life fitness requires challenging some commonly held conceptions. How often have you heard that you need to have good, supportive shoes for every activity from walking to mountain climbing?
Feet play a vital role in whole-body health, wellbeing and performance, so, naturally, we want to take good care of them.
However, more often than you might expect, the best and most supportive option for many activities is your own two feet. If you are committed to living an active lifestyle, being a capable, self-reliant human being, and taking responsibility for your future, here are a few insights as to why you might want to free your feet more often.
“For a long time we’ve effectively ignored the training of our feet and simply assumed that they’ll be up to the task while we concentrate fastidiously on our cores, our glutes, our hamstrings, our upper body muscles and everything above the ankle. That’s kinda weird.”
-Dan Edwardes, Founder, Parkour Generations
We’ve broken the article into three parts:
- Part I. WHY: The Physical Benefits
- Part II. WHEN: Overcoming Mental Barriers, Social Norms and Fear
- Part III. HOW: Forward Momentum Strategies
Part I. WHY: The Physical Benefits
Feet Need Exposure
“Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.” – Nassim Taleb, Author of The Black Swan
As humans, we are magnificently designed to develop and maintain health and strength throughout our lives. The body loves doing this work, but it is designed to be smart about it, expending energy only when necessary. That’s where your active lifestyle habits and training strategies come in. Exposing your body, including your feet, to certain stresses and demands is the key to sustaining your whole body health and the level of performance you desire.
Feet are complex systems composed of:
- joints that allow for fluid movement when used often and in proper alignment;
- muscles that increase their capacity to store and release energy the more we exert them;
- connective tissues that transmit mechanical tension, contributing to structural alignment and amplifying muscular force;
- arteries that need enough space among the other tissues to carry nutrient-rich blood to the tissues; and
- nerves that similarly need a clear path to send and receive messages from the brain.
The familiar adage applies to feet: “use it,” and you’ll build and maintain your capabilities, or you’ll “lose it.” Like the hips and other examples, feet don’t spontaneously maintain mobility and strength while sitting on the couch. They must be exposed regularly to positive stresses. From birth onward, we slowly start exercising them: first crawling, then standing, walking, running and every other activity we take on. In the same way as we learn to maintain upright posture in our spines — as we begin to use and train the muscles that support them — feet similarly adapt and strengthen with use.
The Soles Of Your Feet
The soles of your feet are designed to have a fatty padding which protects you.
Most people who have habitually worn shoes, however, have very little of this padding.
Because the typical condition these feet experience is perpetually soft, flat, and sweaty inside a shoe, the feet never learn they need this protection. Exposing your feet to the variety of stimuli in the physical environment is what tells them, “Grow more fatty tissue, please!”
Find out more here: Grow Yourself A Shoe: All About the Foot’s Fatty Padding
To this end, our feet not only need exposure to the physical demands of exercising muscles, they also need sensory exposure. Feeling the ground as we walk and run provides several types of valuable feedback that teaches our brains how to engage the right muscles to move comfortably and healthfully (i.e., with good coordination and minimal impact.)
Sensory Feedback Comes in Several Forms
By releasing our feet from the confines of shoes and feeling the ground directly, we allow ourselves to take in sensory feedback that many of us are unaccustomed to and which may be startling at first. It can be pleasant, unpleasant, or merely informative, but when we understand the purpose and value of each of these types of sensations, we can more readily integrate them into our overall body awareness and training.
Positive feedback, AKA Instant Gratification, comes in the form of new, interesting, and richer sensations when we feel the ground directly. We have the opportunity to reconnect with our inner child who likes to explore the world and play freely, seeking fun and novelty in our activities. In the full spectrum of fitness, being cooped up in a gym and doing repetitive exercises can only get us so far; we also need to let our curiosity, creativity, and spontaneity flourish from time to time through playful activities.
Proprioceptive information, the body’s ability to tell where all its parts are and what they’re doing in relation to one another and to the environment, is enhanced when we can feel the ground. Our ability to accurately gauge impact forces depends on the hardness and topography of the ground surface. Balance improves when we can feel where our weight is distributed and shift accordingly. Taken together, the brain has a clearer sense of which muscles to engage to move us in our desired manner as safely as possible.
Negative feedback sounds scary but it is actually one of the ways our body automatically takes care of itself. Pain and discomfort are “features, not flaws,” which signal danger in order to protect us. If we listen carefully, we can use them to our advantage. Some warnings are critical and worth heeding (such as when your hand reflexively removes itself from the fire); other times, making a mindful decision to endure a certain degree of discomfort sends a message to the body to change something and adapt to new stresses (i.e. increasing cardio capacity or muscular strength.)
Benefits of Increased Exposure
Using the muscles of the foot more and through increased ranges of motion builds strength. During every step, hop, skip, jump, bound or stride, the foot will become a stronger base of support to move from. This contributes directly to the body’s ability to stabilize itself, which in turn will improve movement quality.
Foot alignment and whole body posture
The foot, like the spine, performs at its best when all of its components coordinate movements in healthy, proper alignment. It too has its own “posture,” if you will. Uninhibited by shoes, toes are able to spread wider and longer, allowing the muscles of the foot to engage to their fullest capacity when required. This has a positive impact on foot and ankle posture throughout our movements.
Sensory information the foot sends to the brain has a direct impact on the reflexive activation of stabilizer muscles of the core, hips, ankles, shoulders and more. Maximizing this can help to maintain or, when needed, realign one’s whole body posture and give our extremities a solid base to move from with confidence. Even better, it goes both ways: just as foot posture can improve whole body posture, so can healthy whole body posture improve foot posture.
Reduced Impact Forces
Feet are natural impact sensors that, when given the opportunity, encourage us to move in ways that minimize the impact forces incurred (by controlling, through gait and cadence, how far we fall in between each foot placement). In the process, we learn to activate stabilizer muscles which can increase body awareness and the ability to control and coordinate movements much more efficiently every step, stride, hop, skip and jump.
When functioning naturally, the foot can sustain enormous pressure thanks to the elastic properties of its many muscles and fascia (connective tissue). These tissues work together to spread ground contact reaction forces over time and distance, reducing the risk of musculoskeletal wear or damage. When the foot is inhibited in any way, these impact forces will be absorbed elsewhere in the body and increase the potential for injury.
If you want to maintain and/or improve whole body health and performance, including full foot function is vital. Like any machine, our biological one functions best when all its parts are in proper alignment and working from positions of mechanical advantage (AKA movement efficiency: expending the least amount of energy to accomplishing the most amount of work). When these habits and skills are honed over time, we have the potential to outperform and outlast current strategies and belief systems that rely on external mechanical supports (namely, modern footwear and orthotic devices which cause our own bodies to become complacent and weaker).
Parents, Take Note!
Every part of the foot was designed to aid in locomotion, including the bottom of the sole.
Building strong movement patterns during early childhood development requires the full use of the feet, including built-in impact and balance sensors on its surface.
Give kids a chance! Let their feet be free as often as possible -- at least until the time they can make mindful footwear decisions for themselves and will be able to do so with a base of healthy, strong feet and good movement habits.
Part II. WHEN: Overcoming Mental Barriers, Social Norms, and Fear
While the physical benefits of taking your shoes off, are, we think, quite compelling, there are often psychological and social barriers to overcome.
Challenging the Status Quo
Shoes have become so commonplace in modern society that most people assume they are necessary or even required. On the contrary, the concept of “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” is a regional mindset (nonexistent in many states and countries) that has often been mistakenly interpreted as a law or health code obligation. We’re simply so used to it in certain regions that we’ve come to take it as fact instead of questioning for ourselves.
One mom in San Diego, California admitted, “I only send my kids out with shoes on because all the other moms do.” This reluctance to break from common practice is fueled by assumptions about socioeconomic status as well as health and safety considerations. Unfortunately, these concerns rarely take the overall health and well being of the human body into account.
Armed with the information above, we encourage you to make more mindful, personal, and confident choices that align with your own personal values when it comes to when and where you use footwear, setting an example for others instead of following the crowd.
“Do I really need to be wearing shoes? Do I want to be wearing shoes?” are great questions to ask yourself throughout your day-to-day activities as you go through location, terrain and temperature changes, business and personal situations, etc. Be true to you!
Want To Dress Up Your Feet?
Still want to dress up your feet? Or need a way to visit locations or businesses that you would otherwise want to wear footwear to? Check out BAREFEETZ or other crafty, soleless sandal options, or simply DIY using materials from your local craft store.
Freedom Lies Beyond Fear
“Fear is a structure we build internally over time…so build another architecture in your mind: an architecture of confidence.” – Dan Edwardes
Once upon a time, without shoes of any kind, we navigated challenging terrains all the way from Africa to Europe, China, and Australia. Our feet are more capable than most people realize, and yet fear of the risks and dangers often prevents us from exploring what they can do.
Ready to step beyond your fears? Start from wherever you are and challenge yourself to the level you desire. First, choose situations where you otherwise feel safe and comfortable as you get acclimated to the idea of your body’s self-reliance. For some, the first step might be as small as leaving your footwear by the door when you get home. For others, it might mean walking outside to get the mail without shoes on. Perhaps it’s taking a walk around the neighborhood, driving, playing in the backyard, or kicking your shoes off at a backyard barbeque.
Over time, as you experience more of what your feet are capable of and see that most of the dangers are overestimated, your comfort zone will expand. Keep in mind that both your mind and body will continue to change only if you are willing to challenge them beyond their current physical and psychological capabilities.
Part III. HOW: Forward Momentum Strategies
Think INSTANT GRATIFICATION…
“You don’t do a particular exercise because it is good for a particular body part. You do it because it is fun and it appeals to you. The fun resides in the challenge to adapt to your environment. The physical improvement is the beneficial outcome, but you need to find instant gratification in doing exactly what you’re doing when you’re doing it.” – Erwan Le Corre, Founder, MovNat
Overall, once you recognize the potential benefits of freeing your feet more often, the goal is to make it as fun as possible.
This includes pushing yourself to new levels, but, at the same time, listening to your body. Pay attention to what you begin to notice and then see how much farther you can safely and enjoyably go. With the right mindset, the whole process can continue to be fun as you break through new boundaries and learn how much more you are capable of.
“Your are fit if you can adapt to your environment with ease and imagination.” — Tom Myers, Author of Anatomy Trains
Commit your fitness mindset to:
EXPLORE your surroundings;
CHALLENGE your current mindset and physical capabilities; and
ADAPT to the terrain, your surroundings and going beyond the norm.
Want more reasons to motivate you? Check out the Barefoot Professor Daniel Howell’s The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes and Shoes Are Not Paleo’s Shoes: The Silent Killer Series.
Try these action strategies at a level that works for you:
- Leave your footwear at the door when you’re at home.
- Make it a point to spend some time every day walking without shoes on. Even better, add in a few stairs while you’re at it.
- Take footwear off while sitting (or standing) at the desk (including socks, unless they are loose or of the 5-toed variety.)
- Instead of wearing footwear all the time, bring it along for when you may need it. Take it on and off as needed during your day and activities.
- Seek out a spot in your yard or at a local park with natural terrain to walk and play on.
- Get up and down off the ground more often in your day, without footwear on.
- Find like-minded people for support in a group setting: join the Society for Barefoot Living or check out Facebook for numerous community forums.
- Check out Shoes Are Not Paleo’s Practical Barefooting Webinar series.
- Head over to the Feet Freex facebook page and leave your comments with more ideas for others on what has worked for you!
By Jessi Stensland and Stephanie Welch
Jessi is a multisport athlete and movement specialist currently focused on the feet. She has been described as a force of nature and deemed “the foot prophet” by those who’ve heard her speak. In October 2015 she launched FEET FREEX, a global movement and resource inspiring natural foot function and footwear designs that for allow it. To learn more and join the tribe visit www.feetfreex.com!
Stephanie Welch is a humanist, barefooter, and ancestral health advocate in Boston, MA. Through her massage therapy career and extensive independent study of human evolution and biomechanics, as well as through personal experimentation, she came to realize that shoes are one of the world’s most overlooked health hazards. She believes the first step, literally, to a brighter future for humanity is getting out of our shoes and reconnecting with ourselves, our environment, and our fellow human beings