This Is What's Happening to Your Feet Now That You Basically Never Wear Shoes
With so much time spent indoors this past year thanks to the pandemic, it's getting harder to remember what it feels like to wear real shoes. Sure, you might pop them on to run the occasional errand, but for the most part, supportive footwear has taken a backseat to animal-shaped slippers and other sherpa-lined delights.
"Our home-based lifestyle has caused a significant change in the shoes we wear," says Dana Canuso, D.P.M., a board-certified podiatrist and podiatric surgeon based in New Jersey. "Many of us have shifted from sneakers and boots to slippers and [being] barefoot, and this change significantly impacts many aspects of foot health."
While not all changes to footwear habits have been negative (i.e. Canuso notes more people are now inclined to wear sneakers all day so going for walks is more convenient), those wearing nothing but comfy footwear — or no footwear at all — could be building a foundation for future foot problems as a result. But is going barefoot actually so bad? Here's what experts have to say about spending so much time sans-shoes.
The Pros and Cons of Wearing Shoes Less Often
In general, wearing shoes is a good thing because they provide protection and support. But if you've been loving barefoot life, there is good news: it does have some health perks.
"Without support from footwear, your feet work harder to maintain balance and stability, which essentially gives them a greater workout," says Bruce Pinker, D.P.M., a New York-based board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon.
Going barefoot forces you to use your foot muscles — both extrinsic and intrinsic — more than when they're supported by shoes. The foot's extrinsic muscles originate above the ankle and insert into various parts of the foot, allowing for movements such as pointing the top of your foot away from your leg, raising your foot toward your shin, and moving your feet from side to side. Intrinsic muscles are found within the foot area and take care of fine motor movements such as flexing your toes and staying balanced as you walk. (Related: How Weak Ankles and Bad Ankle Mobility Affect Your Whole Body)
What's more, going barefoot outdoors — called "earthing" or "grounding" — in particular can even be used as a cathartic form of mindfulness, as it forces you to slow down and be more aware of your environment. "Many people will walk barefoot to be more connected to Mother Nature, and this connectedness can be therapeutic," says Pinker. Even science backs it up: Research has found that simply having direct contact with the Earth (via your feet, for example) can reduce the risk of heart problems, pain, and stress.
All that said, moderation is key. "In theory, barefoot walking is beneficial since it's a more natural way of walking — but if done for longer periods of time, it can lead to problems," says Daniel Cuttica, D.O., a Virginia-based board-certified orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon for The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.
Because of the complexity of the foot and ankle area (28 bones, 33 joints, and 112 ligaments controlled by 13 extrinsic and 21 intrinsic muscles), it's almost impossible for every aspect of a person's foot to function in a neutral position naturally, says Canuso. This is why properly structured and fitted shoes continue to be an important part of getting your feet as close to neutral as possible. "Any imbalance of strength, or position of one muscle over another, can cause ligaments, other muscles, or even bones to shift, leading to arthritis and possible injury," she says.
Walking or standing barefoot for long stretches — particularly, on hard floors — can lead to increased pressure and stress on the feet due to a lack of cushion and protection, which can lead to foot pain such as plantar fasciitis (pain and inflammation across the bottom of your foot), metatarsalgia (pain at the ball of the foot), and tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon).
"Those with a pronatory [prone to pronantion] or flat foot type are predisposed to more injury from not wearing shoes since they're already lacking the support needed to promote a neutral foot position," says Canuso. Meanwhile, people with high arches require more cushion to function correctly. Because all the pressure is placed on the ball and heel of the foot versus throughout the whole midfoot when sans-shoes, the increased pressure on these areas can lead to stress fractures and calluses. When forgoing
Of course, shoe choice matters. If you tend to wear shoes that have narrow or pointy toes or heels greater than 2.5 inches, going shoeless can be the lesser of two evils. "Narrow-toed and pointy-toed shoes can lead to hammertoes, bunions, and pinched nerves, while excessively high-heeled shoes can cause metatarsalgia as well as ankle sprains," says Pinker.
And while going barefoot might feel freeing, there's something to be said for keeping your feet safe, to a certain extent. "Shoes also protect your feet from the elements, such as sharp objects on the ground and hard surfaces," says Cuttica. "Whenever you walk barefoot, you expose our feet to these risks." (Related: The Foot-Care Products Podiatrists Use On Themselves)
How to Keep Your Feet Strong and Protected
A strong foot is one that functions with all of the muscles, bones, and ligaments in a neutral position, adequately supporting your body weight and allowing you to propel your body in the desired direction: forwards, backwards, sideways. It provides a solid foundation for your body from the ground up. "Any weakness in the foot can affect the mechanics of how you walk, which can lead to increased stresses on other parts of the body and may cause pain or injury," says Cuttica.
Use these tips to find the right balance of barefoot and shoe life and learn how to keep your feet strong.
Don't ditch shoes entirely.
It's okay to let your feet breathe when you're vegging out, but if you're working, cooking, cleaning, and especially exercising, you should be wearing some sort of shoe or sneaker, says Canuso. Besides providing your feet with the proper support they need to do their thing effectively, it also protects them from environmental elements that could cause injury — a rogue thumbtack, a forgotten toy, an overflowing pot of hot water, or an ill-placed table leg.
One exception to the exercising rule? Barefoot activity on a gym mat (or other soft surface), such as martial arts or yoga, can strengthen your feet and increase stability in the lower extremities. (See: Why You Should Consider Training Barefoot)
Invest in supportive indoor shoes and slippers.
As a general rule, you shouldn't be able to bend your shoe into a "u" shape. "This is a very good indication that it's not supportive enough," says Canuso. "The most common foot type in the U.S. is a pronatory or flat foot, so looking for a shoe with an arch built into the insert or sole of the shoe would be most supportive."
When you're in R&R mode, go with a slipper that covers the top of the foot, has an enclosed back, and either some sort of arch support or cushioning that spans the entire length of the slipper. (Try any of these slippers and house shoes made for WFH life.)
And replace them regularly: "Slippers wear down very quickly and should be replaced much more often than other shoes," says Canuso.
Rotate through your shoe collection.
It's recommended to rotate the usage of your footwear so as to not overuse any one pair of shoes. Wearing the same pair all the time can exacerbate any imbalance within the muscles and ligaments of your feet and increase your risk of a repetitive stress injury, says Canuso.
Plus, the more often you wear them, the faster they'll wear out: "Continuous wearing of one pair of shoes can lead to an accelerated reduction in the quality of the midsole or outersole (or both)," says Pinker. "If these components of the shoe become worn out, it's possible to experience injuries, such as stress fractures or sprains."
Add some foot-strengthening exercises to your repertoire.
As long as you're not currently in any pain, doing foot exercises — such as these ones from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons — can help strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the foot and offset your shoe-wearing hiatus. Helpful exercises include placing your foot on one end of a small towel or washcloth and using your toes to curl it toward you (try 5 reps with each foot) as well as drawing the alphabet with your toes while moving the ankle in different directions.
You can also stretch your plantar fascia ligaments (the connective tissues on the bottom of the feet). Try towel stretches (loop a towel around your foot, pulling the foot toward you and holding for 30 seconds, repeating 3 times on both sides). And if your feet are sore, give frozen water bottle rolling a go to reduce pain: freeze a water bottle full of water and then roll it under your feet, paying particular attention to your arches, for about 2 minutes per foot. (Or try one of these other foot massagers that people swear by.)
"Since many foot problems are related to tight calf muscles or imbalances, exercises focused on these areas can also help reduce the risk of pain," says Cuttica. Try these calf stretches and calf exercises to strengthen and stretch the Achilles tendon region (the band of tissue that connects the calf muscle to your heel bone).
Listen to your feet.
If pain develops, listen to your barking dogs and reduce your foot-strengthening strategies or modify them. "Overuse is a common cause of injury," says Pinker. "Gradual exercise that slowly increases activity over time, based upon tolerance, is usually the safest approach to keeping your feet strong."