Most of the time we spend on our feet it’s with a considerable amount of cushion beneath them. From shoes to slippers, to socks we rarely shed the layers and let our feet directly engage with the environment around us, let alone exercise doing so.
Footwear is designed to make us as comfortable as possible when walking, running and moving. But with so much support being provided by our shoes we’re losing out on the benefits and importance of barefoot exercise. It’s not how our feet have evolved to work!
Key elements of movement like improving ankle mobility and exercising our foot strength are often overlooked because our shoes are already doing a lot of the work for us.
With home workouts on the rise in popularity is it time we use the chance to get to grips with barefoot living again? And is it an effective way to improve our balance?
Importance of Foot and Ankle Stability
Our feet are our anchors to the ground. All our movements are rooted with our feet so they hold an incredible amount of importance to our movement. We can easily overlook the role they play until we find ourselves with a foot injury that leaves us immobile.
Feet are such a complex part of our bodies too, with 26 bones, 30 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments per foot for such a small area they’re incredibly intricate parts of the body. We need to treat them with the same respect we do the larger muscles groups in our body.
If we’re looking at improving our balance, then it stands to reason that we should work from the ground up.
Each foot’s sole has around 100,000 – 200,000 ‘proprioceptive sensors’ in them which all send information to the brain to adjust our movements so we can stay balanced while walking or running etc.
The same can be said for our ankles, any movement made in the foot is going to involve your ankle too in one way or another so it shouldn’t be neglected. Once again the ankles sensors are key for getting information to our brains about how to adapt and adjust to whatever terrain we’re walking on.
Feet and ankles work together very closely so strong feet are going to lead to strong ankles, which puts us on the right course for good balance. The more pressure and impact from our surroundings that our feet and ankles can absorb at the contact point with the ground the less effort the rest of our muscles need to use to stabilise, move and adapt quickly.
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As we grow older our bodies naturally atrophy so the better groundwork we can establish in balance and stability confidence now the more we’ll have as we grow older.
Don’t think you get a free pass on this if you’re someone that is often playing sports or engaging in physical activity. Higher activity doesn’t mean you necessarily have stronger feet and ankles naturally if anything it means you are more likely to have ‘faulty foot mechanics’
Barefoot Walking Benefits
The practice of going barefoot more often has risen in popularity recently. Dubbed by some enthusiast as ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’ the focus is to get our bodies reconnecting with the earth and environment around. It’s something we should all give a shot.
As mentioned earlier our feet have a wealth of proprioceptive nerve endings within them that are the basis of how we move the rest of our body in relation to the ground we’re walking on. Going barefoot gives these nerves the opportunity to get to grips with the surroundings so your body can react better.
This in turn has a huge impact on your movement as a whole. As Emily Splichal, D.P.M., a functional podiatrist points out ‘Someone working out might not feel their glutes in a squat, and that's not necessarily because of weakness, but because they haven't established their foundation’.
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Like any part of the body if the nerve endings in the feet aren’t used then they’re not going to perform as effectively and lose their ability to do the job well. A strong established foundation is perhaps the biggest benefit of barefoot workouts because it comes with a range of other benefits as a result. It’s the first building block of the body to be added onto.
Shoes, especially those used in sports like basketball or runners, are designed nowadays to help give us plenty of support, and some come with specific extra ankle support. This is a great benefit when it comes to the movements necessary in the sports mentioned but we can’t be wearing these shoes day in day out. So what effect is this going to have when we take them off?
Building a strong foundation and understanding of barefoot balance is going to benefit us still when we put our shoes back on. Developing the same understanding of balance wearing a pair of shoes is going to put us back to square one when we take them off.
There are clearly a lot of times going barefoot wouldn’t go down very well. Gyms are unlikely to want users walking around barefoot anytime soon, nor would many want to see it! As we’re finding ourselves spending a lot more time at home recently and the rise in popularity of ‘at home fitness’ we have a great opportunity to work on this!
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Risks of Barefoot Running and Exercise
So there are plenty of rewards to be felt from shedding the shoes and getting your toes into the environment around but it doesn’t come without its dangers.
There are obvious dangers that can come with barefoot fitness. For example, we can’t expect to shed our shoes and go running along the road or through the forest without needing a couple of plasters afterwards. Moreover, without grip provided by shoes, we are more susceptible to unsafe terrains whether they’re wet and slippy, too hot etc. The dangers aren’t just in our surroundings though.
Barefoot running, in particular, is risky. While some experts agree running with shoes weakens the smaller muscles of the feet and prevents the tendons, ligaments, and natural arches from doing their job the last thing we want to do is suddenly overwork them.
When we run we can land on each stride with two to three times our body weight. With your feet and ankles taking on this extra pressure from each stride there’s a much smaller margin for error in causing an injury.
As many of us are used to wearing shoes when training (or just walking around) it’s also likely we have developed poor walking mechanics without realising. The body needs to be prepared for this kind of training before embarking on it. Heading straight into barefoot fitness can exacerbate problems we didn’t know we had often causing more harm than good.
Exercises for Foot Strength
As is clear, there’s a world of benefits to be found from barefoot walking and exercise, but it comes with its own risks, so how do we mitigate the dangers safely? In short, approach it like you would any new exercise – slowly and cautiously.
Diving right in at the deep end without shoes is going to do you no favours, and potentially cause a number of problems. You wouldn’t blindly hop on to a new piece of gym equipment and give it your all without knowing what it does first – and your feet are the best equipment of all so we should take care of them!
We also recommend first starting slow and in an environment, you’re comfortable in and know well, like your home. Home gyms and home fitness is rising in popularity thanks to various worldwide lockdowns so why not use this time to give barefoot training a go safely.
One sure-fire way to not open ourselves up to the potential pitfalls of barefoot is to do exercise that is low impact in the first place. A great example of this is the Swifty Fitness Balance Board. Our balance board is perfect for use at home, low impact on joints, accessible for all ages and abilities and is best used barefoot!
Using a balance board is a full-body exercise that really focuses your mind on muscle coordination, proprioception and importantly foot position.
Balance boarding is a form of functional fitness, meaning it mimics and prepares our bodies for the kind of movements that we do in day to day life.
Taking basic movements and putting them on a destabilised base keeps your body constantly moving and a whole number of muscles activated at any one time. When even the simplest shifts of weight are done on the board you understand the effect it has because the board is responding directly to your movements. When we then do the same actions on the solid ground our bodies are used to it and can react quickly and more confidently.
The pattern of the Swifty balance board is designed to help your foot grip onto it. Grooves in the surface mean you can be confident in your foot placement without any worry of slipping. It’s a great way to understand the areas of your feet and the role they play when it comes to balance.
If you want to stick to the solid ground at first start by just walking around your home barefoot, up and down the stairs, in the garden etc while being mindful of your foot and ankle movements. You can also try some stationary exercises like squats, calf raises and lunges. Stationary exercises are also a great way to utilise the Swifty balance board, even the simplest of exercises take on a new light when your base is destabilised!
Take it slow, make sure you’re comfortable in your movements and keep an eye on your surroundings and before you know it you’ll be ditching the shoes more often than not!