AAt the gym, few of us would ever consider attending a HIIT class without shoes on. But when we’re at home, hanging out barefoot or in socks, it’s tempting to skip straight to our workout without laces. Do we really need to wear shoes?
There are some who say that going barefoot while exercising is a good way to strengthen your feet, and others who say that it’s a recipe for injury.
So we asked a physical therapist what the real deal is.
Benefits and risks of working barefoot
Autumn Hanson, DPT, a physical therapist and owner of PERMISSION2MOVE, says there are many factors to consider before deciding to go barefoot, but leaving your sneakers by the door can definitely have benefits.
Our feet become hyper-aware
Dr. Hanson explains that because our feet are the only part of our body in constant contact with the ground beneath us, we rely heavily on them for proprioception, the sensory feedback that helps us know where our bodies are in space.
“Without even being aware of it, we’re constantly evaluating data about the ground below us that our feet transmit to our brain: Is the road slanted? Is the ground level? Our feet are essentially telling our brain where our body is in relation to its environment,” says Dr. Hanson, who explains that this is how we gain important information to inform our balance and stability.
Working out barefoot is one way to enhance that response. Not only does it, you know, keep us from tripping, but it also helps strengthen the 34 muscles in our feet and lower legs.
It slows us down
Dr. Hanson adds that another benefit of working out barefoot is that it forces us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings, which promotes mindfulness and calms and grounds the body and mind.
Our feet get to spend time in their natural position
“With our feet confined to a shoe, our muscles think this soft new bed (shoe) means it’s time to sleep. Foot muscle activity is significantly reduced when our thick cushions and pre-formed arches are braced,” explains Dr. Hanson. “The shape and style of the shoe tries to control your foot’s motion rather than encouraging the muscles to engage.”
This basically forces the weak foot into a shoe shape and position that is quite different from the normal foot position, he says.
“Our toes, once the widest part of our feet, are now placed in a narrow toe box that further reduces their function,” she notes. “As a society, aesthetics are often more important than function, but if we’re not careful with our shoe considerations, we can increase our foot problems.” This can mean hammer toes, bunions, pinched nerves, collapsed arches, metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuromas and tight/pulled calves and other muscle imbalances and injuries.
We lose protection and shock absorption
Of course, there are risks associated with working without shoes. “Shoes protect our feet from rocks, glass and other debris that can cause injuries to your feet. They also offer shock absorption for our joints,” shares Dr. Hanson. And they offer some padding if you, well, accidentally drop a weight on them.
Also know that if you’re exercising with high-impact movements, you’ll need to slow down, reduce the height of any jumps, and rethink your landing when you’re barefoot. You can always work on a cushioned mat or carpet though.
When should you definitely wear sneakers?
While working out barefoot may be okay for some people, some foot conditions, biomechanical issues, and medical conditions make it impractical or even unsafe.
“With some foot conditions, such as plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuroma, walking barefoot can be very painful, especially in the morning. People who experience loss of sensation in their feet, such as advanced diabetes or certain complications from a herniated disc, should not go barefoot,” says Dr. Hanson. “If the foot is unable to communicate information from the floor, there is a very high chance of injury.”
You should always wear shoes if the ground you are working on is uncomfortable or unsafe (for example, hot pavement).
If you want to work out barefoot, consider the type of exercise you’re doing. Dr. Bodyweight exercises are great for doing barefoot because your toes are protected from the risk of weight bearing down on them, says Hanson. “Pilates, yoga and martial arts are all performed barefoot,” he adds.
But if you want to go for it with high-impact HIIT classes, weight training, or even running, Dr. Hanson recommends starting small.
“If you always wear shoes, spend one to two hours a day in bare feet. During these hours, actively try to separate your toes or hold a towel with your toes,” she advises. “If you want to try going outside barefoot, take a five to ten minute walk in your front or back yard. Try grabbing the grass with it. Notice how the grass feels on your feet. Enjoy!”