A podiatrist weighs in on the barefoot trend

Seen those celebs without shoes? Thinking of dipping a bare toe into barefoot walking and running? Here’s everything to consider

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photo: Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images
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photo: Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images

Seen those celebs without shoes? Thinking of dipping a bare toe into barefoot walking and running? Here’s everything to consider

By Rhys Thomas26 Jun 2023
11 mins read time
11 mins read time

Have you noticed that on the streets of London, New York City, Los Angeles and probably a bunch of other places that aren’t exactly super sandy or otherwise soft, people seem to be increasingly walking around barefoot? Jacob Elordi was seen doing this in 2021 in LA, but the photos resurfaced a couple months back. Around the same time as Elordi, Drew Barrymore made Page Six headlines for strutting shoeless in New York. More recently, Shawn Mendes’ friend Mike Sabath was spotted walking barefoot with Shawn and their other friends while they all sipped on cold drinks and carried bags from a Beverly Grove wellness store called The Detox Market.

Of course, it’s not just a celebrity thing. On TikTok, perhaps the most known ambassador of the movement is the barefoot guy, aka George Woodville, from Cambridge. He went barefoot while on family holiday in October 2021 and has since amassed a 554k following by asking people who are wearing shoes, whether they’d go barefoot right in the moment, mid-interview. If they do take their shoes off, he gets them to reflect on how it feels. His current TikTok bio includes the claim he goes barefoot 365 days a year.

Other people preaching the benefits and/or enjoyment of walking barefoot, and racking up millions of views include Indy, Indy, a yogi and aerialist who posts under the username @notgoodatmostthings and posted this video of her journey to the barefoot life. In the comments she mentions that, despite the lifestyle being expensive (due to the specialist shoes which are designed to provide some protection to the foot but to be as close to the barefoot experience as possible, and other equipment like toe stretchers), going barefoot has made her realise how uncomfortable most shoes are. She also points out that going barefoot doesn’t have to be “all or nothing”. On Reddit the r/barefootrunning community has 44.6k members at the time of writing. Not all of these people literally strut about with their soles pressing into the hot tarmac (and whatever else is on the floor) for 10,000 steps a day. The page is also home to a group of people who wear minimalist shoes, as the community calls them.

There’s also a popular barefoot community on YouTube with a variety of creators producing videos comparing shoes, documenting the benefits they’ve felt from going barefoot, and discussing the pros and cons of doing so. Again, the advice is contradictory in places, or at least each person’s experiences are notably different. This is partly due to many of these content creators and the like not having podiatric credentials, but mainly because people are documenting their own experiences, and everyone’s feet are very different.

But clearly, ditching footwear (or at least the footwear most of us are used to stomping around town in) is very, very popular. 59 year old Joseph DeRuvo Jr. has been barefoot for over twenty years, walking and running that way all year around, while living in urban environments, but thousands upon thousands of people are embracing barefoot life or becoming barefoot-curious. El Robertson, 26, went barefoot at 24 and similarly hasn’t looked back. El and Joseph even go shopping barefoot. And sure, just as many people are wondering why people are doing this, but there seems to be a widespread belief among those who have gone barefoot that it is helping their wellbeing.

What’s this whole thing about barefoot helping with grounding or earthing?

Reported physical benefits from barefoot enthusiasts include improved posture, foot strength, and balance, along with less joint and muscle pain. While the physical benefits vary from person to person, there are psychological benefits to being barefoot that people more unanimously claim to have felt. Much of this is to do with the concept of grounding, or earthing.

Earthing is pretty straightforward (if a little trippy). When we make direct contact with the surface of the earth, it’s said to cause us to receive electrons from the earth. It’s said that in 1998 a retired pioneer of the American cable TV industry, called Clint Ober, discovered Earthing. He realised that the soles of our shoes likely stopped us from receiving electromagnetic signals from the environment, and wondered what connecting to the earth could do for humans.

The Earth generally has a negative charge, which means grounding is comparable to receiving antioxidants. The negative charge of antioxidants neutralise free radicals and oxidants. Research does show that antioxidants help with everything from inflammation to sleep. You don’t have to walk to receive this, you can just stand barefoot, but the more you ‘earth’ the bigger the benefit, so walking has its merits (presumably you don’t always have the time to stand somewhere for hours on end?). One study in the National Library of Medicine suggests that grounding can also help inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Another study suggests electrons can work like antioxidants, therefore the logic follows that receiving electrons from Earth is like having antioxidants.

While judging people is generally bad vibes, it becomes even less logical when we consider that the barefoot community reports many benefits to their way of being. The real question we should ask ultimately is, while people may feel good going barefoot, is this an okay thing for us to do? Can humans walk (let alone run) around on concrete and roads full of dust and debris all day without any issue?

We posed the question to Emma McConnachie, an accredited podiatrist and Media and Communications Officer at the Royal College of Podiatry. Generally, she says “it’s probably okay for some people to be barefoot.” But there’s a lot of caveats to consider.

“Feet consist of 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, there’s a lot of variables. And while they’re a pair, each of our feet are slightly different,” says McConnachie. “So it’s really difficult to say whether something is good for everyone or not.”. These variables mean that every foot in every human is going to have a different response to barefoot life. This is apparent when you consider that even within the barefoot community, there are a variety of different approaches.

There’s more than one way to go barefoot

The subreddit r/barefootrunning for example, technically refers to itself as a space for “barefoot & minimalist” runners. Some of the shoes designed for minimalist running look like trainers, others are designed to look more like a glove for your toes. In most cases they’re very flexible (you can sort of fold them into a ball), they have a wider than average toe-box (the bit where your foot sits), and tend to be the same thickness from the toe to the heel. They generally do not include any form of shock absorption, hence the idea of them being minimal.

Generally what people should do if wanting to try the barefoot life is to start out slow. “If they've been wearing shoes all their days, they're not used to being barefoot yet,” says McConnachie, who suggests starting out around the house, on carpets. “That'll start to build up the strength of the muscles and their arch. Going straight into walking barefoot on hard surfaces can cause foot strain for some people. Especially if the foot rolls inwards as they walk (pronation),” she says.

When you think you’re ready for the outdoors with all its nature and things, again there are ways of dipping your exposed toes into these barefoot waters. For instance, loads of outdoor barefoot walking groups across the UK offer nature walks for beginners in a safe environment. Needless to say, our streets are not always the cleanest. Common debris like broken glass, rubbish, animal poo and thorns can cut us or cause infections, which can lead to more serious health issues.

The caution from barefoot activity only increases when we consider running. “Running has a much higher impact on our feet. Wearing shoes or not, running isn't right for everyone. If you're already seeing a podiatrist, it's worth asking them for their opinion about your suitability, but I would not recommend going straight into barefoot running and it's important to recognise that might not be right for your feet or your body type,” McConnachie explains.

So we can ditch the shoes?

While running is inherently more risky and impactful on our feet, and barefoot walking is less likely to cause an issue, McConnachie does suggest that some people should avoid barefoot walking. This includes anyone with circulation problems in their feet or a condition like diabetes. “Any medical issue where you might lose the feeling in their feet - which is bad because you can hurt yourself without realising - or if you have circulatory problems, because cuts could take a long time to heal, and that can be dangerous,” she clarifies.

Generally, if you're already getting pain in your feet while walking in shoes, that may be indicative that you will need specialist help and your footwear. “So barefoot walking might not be the right choice for you.” McConnachie says, pointing out that if you wear down the outside of your shoes quite a bit, that's often a sign of rolling in (also known as over-pronation, when your feet point inward while walking) and “those people would benefit from more support in their footwear, not less.”

Despite what some corners of the barefoot community might profess, McConnachie says “it's not necessarily true that shoes aren't okay for our feet. An excessively pointed shoe might cause damage to our feet, as well as a cheap one designed badly, but generally shoes are okay if they fit properly.”

McConnachie is generally a fan of barefoot-style shoes too, saying that for those who don’t need specialist help with features like shock absorption, they can be a great idea. Either way, you can still reap the benefits of grounding by simply taking your shoes and socks off and standing still on the bare ground; you don’t have to walk to ground. You could also walk on soft surfaces like grass and sand (still be careful about what’s on the floor).

So what will happen if I go barefoot?

If this has you thinking more than ever about taking the step sans Crocs, then it’s worth considering the changes you’ll feel. An initial difference will be the skin on the sole of your foot firming up and hardening. Your feet, especially the toes, will likely widen too, because most shoes do squeeze our toes in slightly. According to studies, foot strength improves greatly by going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes. Strong feet can help with balance and stability through the entire body.

“You might well improve your posture by walking barefoot. But often it depends on what you’ve been wearing previously. Very poorly fitted footwear that isn't right for your feet can make you claw your toes and shuffle in a way that is bad for posture” McConnachie explains.

Assuming that’s all good with you, the last thing to consider is foot care. “With the skin being tougher, you'll want to be moisturising it to keep the skin supple and in good condition,” McConnachie adds. “You also need to be checking the soles of your feet daily to make sure that you don't have cuts, open wounds, or anything stuck in your foot that you maybe haven't felt.”

As this all suggests, it isn’t risky to be barefoot, provided you’re listening to your body and taking things slow. Nor is it weird, if you think about it properly. “Barefoot is our natural position, we weren't born with shoes, we were born to be barefoot,” says McConnachie, adding that; “when we traditionally did barefoot walking, it wasn't on hard surfaces like tarmac, it was on the ground – earth, grass and sand. Those are very different forces exerted on the foot compared to a pavement.”

This doesn’t mean some of us can’t walk on our modern surfaces, it’s just we just need to build up to it first. If you’re going about the barefoot life safely and are able to get over people asking you why you’re walking around without shoes, well, hey, you may find some benefits (not to mention a sense of community). As with anything wellness, we just need to make sure it’s going to be good for us.