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On the backroads and barefoot with Bill (4 photos)

This week, Bill takes to the back roads without footwear and explains why it might be good for all of us

It is time to consider shedding your footwear and heading for the trails. Only for protection did our ancestors did wrap fur around their feet, from which shoes have evolved over time.

Walking barefoot, also known as "earthing," is now a scientifically-researched practice with a number of noteworthy health advantages to consider.

Barefoot Society

First off, there is a number of barefoot organizations but this one has a great deal of information, the Society for Barefoot Living was established in 1994. When you visit the page, start with the Top Ten Barefoot Myths tab.

Steve Rogers is an electrical engineer from Maryland who works for NASA, he is a member and one of their Facebook administrators. He describes himself as a normal person who had heel pain.

“I kept buying better shoes and orthotics but wanted a more natural solution. I read an article in The New Yorker Magazine that we have been walking wrong for two thousand years of humankind's evolution wrecking our feet with every step; the researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet.”

It was his seminal moment when he transitioned to barefoot walking.

“In fact, according to a podiatrist in the UK, who also happens to be a barefooter, 90 per cent of all foot problems people are seen for are caused by shoes. And the solutions to those problems are even more fancy shoes or shoe orthotics. Most people I know start walking barefoot due to physical pain; it is one thing that breaks through our societal norm of wearing shoes all the time. Most people never even think to question the necessity of shoes.”

Dr. Steve Bloor

Then as luck and perseverance would have it, we found a podiatrist who is a long-time barefoot walker in the United Kingdom. It is the podiatrist mentioned above. Steve Bloor, DPodM, SRCh, HPC, is a podiatrist who uses the Twitter handle @NaturalFeet.

“Depending on how many years you have been in shoes your feet will vary in how long they take to adapt. Some people need to start with as little barefoot walking as five minutes, gradually increasing the time spent outside barefoot," Bloor says. "The soles of your feet may tingle the morning after walking barefoot walking. This tingling should not persist for more than a couple of days. If it does, you know you are transitioning too fast.”

Skin on the bottom of the feet thickens as a natural response to walking barefoot, it doesn’t become calloused. In fact, it is more like soft leather. Some people may take up to two years to fully condition the skin to its true, natural, potential strength and thickness.

“The muscles of the foot, leg, hips and back will gradually need to be strengthened, and sometimes stretched, to revert back to natural gait from the adaptions the body has made to shoes," Bloor says. "This is particularly true of the muscles of the long arch of the foot. They are very often atrophied and very weak. It is believed this is due to the bracing effect which shoes have on feet, leading to wasting of these important supportive muscles.”

He said it is like training any other part of our body. We should start gently, and slowly increase the load or effort involved so as to safely strengthen our muscles and prevent injury.

Another important aspect of this transition is neurological adaption. There are up to 200,000 sensory nerve endings in the foot.

“When shoes are worn, tactile sensory perception is dulled. So, on walking barefoot, the nerve endings will give a sensation of pain as a result of a sudden increase in the level of sensation. And possibly due to the nerve pathways to the brain needing to be created to cope with the wider variety of different sensations the feet are now exposed to.”

Over a period of time walking barefoot these painful sensations moderate and differentiate.

“So as you will be able to sense touch, texture, vibration, shearing stress, temperature, pressure and pain. You will be able to feel a variety of textures and sensations just like your fingers and hands," Bloor said. "The gradual adaption of feet from being weak and needing support to being strong and able to support themselves is possible for most people who understand the process.”

“It is also a satisfying experience and achievement, bringing with it better foot health and improved posture. After just a few weeks of walking barefoot, your sensory awareness will improve so that you will be more aware of your surroundings.”

And this made the most sense.

“You may not realize it, but the most germ-laden place you ever put your feet is inside your shoes," Bloor said. "Shoes act as incubators for infections, being warm, dark and damp. A perfect breeding ground for germs to grow."

"And think of the odour! Constantly bare feet don’t smell," Bloor said. "Yes, you read that correctly, bare feet don’t smell! That’s because the main culprit causing foot odour is a pseudomonas infection, not found on bare feet, but in shoes. So shoes smell, not feet.”

More on Steve here.

More resources to consider

The Canadian Podiatric Medical Association is a non-profit organization working on behalf of its 400-plus members – Canada’s premier foot specialists. Dr. Brendan Bennett, BSc (Hons) Pod. FFPM RCPS (Glasg). FC Pod Med is located in Halifax and a member.

He is a graduate of the Wales Center for Podiatric Studies at the University of Wales and he takes an anatomical/physiological approach to the mechanics of walking barefoot.

“The determinants of gait pelvic rotation, pelvic tilt, knee and hip flexion, knee and ankle interaction, and lateral pelvic displacement, are measures of the efficiency of walking," says Bennett. "These describe the body’s effectiveness in minimizing bodily movements so that forward motion is achieved with minimal energy expenditure.

"Each step we take will involve lifting the foot off the ground the absolute minimum distance typically 1 to 2 cm. So as we swing our foot through the air to take the next step we are estimating the amount of ground clearance we need, we will also predict that the foot will land on a surface, where the surface is, that the surface will be slanted or maybe flat that it will not yield on load.

"This is the predictive aspect which is adjusted by the feedback from each step. Adaptations are occurring constantly based on the response. We may need to slow the load rate to a foot as the contact angle is not as anticipated, or that a sharp object is encountered or that we miscalculate the power required to complete the step."

He said a starting point to address barefoot walking is to find out what someone hopes to accomplish in taking up this practice.

“Barefoot walking is associated with improved muscle strength, posture, proprioception along with better mechanics less injuries and that bare is the natural state of the feet," Bennett said. 

"There is also a significant association with more spiritual practices.

"In terms of the claims, it has not been demonstrated that there are fewer injuries but rather that they are of a different type and are produced at a lower stress threshold. And of course, one can’t ignore the associated hazards which include trauma, infection, thermal injury, bites etc.

"So, given the predictive and adaptive nature of gait, whether one is shod or barefooted the process is the same, only the musculature that is needed will be engaged, and engaged at the minimal possible phasic output.

"We have created a world of hard surfaces around us and have inhabited colder regions from which we need protection for which the adaptation is shoes (among other things). If someone is engaged in a particular pursuit which requires specific properties of the feet or wishes to experience a closeness to nature, then they would have some knowledge about their objectives.

"But I have been unable to source sufficient evidence to dispense general 'barefoot walking is good for you advice.'."

Foot care

You may have to adjust your thinking here. Human bare feet are the equivalent of a dog’s bare paws. Having dirt on them is normal and natural. Washing them is more for the sake of not dirtying mom’s clean floor.

Nurse Nazneen Mehdi is a registered nurse who has ventured north, throughout the pandemic, to serve isolated First Nations communities. Born in India, her culture is no stranger to bare feet walking and the benefits it brings for the well-being of the whole person.

As a nurse, however, she has seen many 'bad' feet ravaged by diabetes, injury and negligence.

Nurse Naz shares the following. 

"Foot care should be on the same level of personal commitment much like our teeth and eyes. Daily tender loving care and attention are suggested. Start with checking them for cuts, cracked skin and painful areas."

Nurse Naz states that wisdom across cultures often points to “washing your feet every evening before bed to wash away the accumulated stress and grime of the day to help ensure a good night's sleep.”

Cleaning with a mild soap in tepid water is suggested followed by drying the feet, especially between the toes. Moisturize your feet daily with lotion, cream, or as some prefer, petroleum jelly.

Nurse Naz also advises paying attention to proper fitting footwear that supports and helps your feet stay aligned and pain-free.

“Our feet are our freedom, they take us places and are the foundation for the health and strength of the spine and the whole body," she says. "Happy feet can take us a long way in our life.”

Benefits

So, in order to reap the benefits, you might have to get off the sidewalk to consider the following.

In no particular order, walking barefoot on natural surfaces is the very best way to keep our feet strong and maintain joint mobility. This helps to prevent arthritis and reduces the risk of foot deformities like bunions. 

It also prevents cripplingly painful foot conditions like plantar fasciitis which only occurs with the long-term wearing of shoes. It allows us to experience our multi-textured world through our sense of touch in our feet and this instant tactile sensory feedback through our bare feet dramatically improves our balance and postural stability.

Time to step it up!

Being barefoot includes a wonderful sense of well-being. 

I have a consecutive day streak going. It just feels so good to hike barefoot through the woods and trails. I feel connected to nature and experience a wonderful variety of natural textures and variations in surface temperatures.

Walking barefoot provides a whole new body feeling on the back roads. Get back to me on your foot stories and favourite places. 

One place I have been frequenting boasts a lush floor of red pine needles along a rapids river so there is always the sound to complement the walkabout here. Maybe we need a map of the best barefoot walking trails in Northern Ontario?


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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