At the gym, few of us would ever consider joining a HIIT class without any shoes on. But when we’re at home, hanging out barefoot or just in socks, it’s tempting to just go straight into our workout without lacing up. Do we really need to put on shoes?
There are people who say that going barefoot while working out is a good way to strengthen your feet, and others who say it’s a recipe for injury.
So we asked a physical therapist what’s the real deal.
The benefits and risks of working out barefoot
Autumn Hanson, DPT, a physical therapist and the owner of PERMISSION2MOVE, says that there are lots of factors to take into consideration before deciding to go barefoot, but there can definitely be benefits to leaving your sneakers by the door.
Our feet become hyper-aware
Dr. Hanson explains that since our feet are the only parts of our body that are in constant contact with the ground beneath us, we rely heavily on them for proprioception, the sensory feedback that helps us know where our body is in space.
“Without even being aware of it, we are constantly assessing data about the ground below us that our feet transfers to our brain: Is the road slanted? Is the ground even? Our feet are basically telling our brain where our body is in relation to its environment,” says Dr. Hanson, who explains that this is how we acquire crucial information to inform our balance and stability.
Working out barefoot is one way to augment that feedback. Not only does this, you know, keep us from tripping, but it helps strengthen the 34 muscles of our feet and lower legs.
It makes us slow down
Dr. Hanson adds that another perk of working out barefoot is that it forces us to move slower and pay attention to our surroundings, which promotes mindfulness and is calming and grounding for the body and mind.
Our feet get to spend time their natural position
“With our feet confined to a shoe, our muscles think this cushy new bed (the shoe) means it’s time to go to sleep. Foot muscle activity significantly decreases when we have thick cushions and pre-formed arches strapped on,” explains Dr. Hanson. “The shape and style of the shoe attempts to control the motion for your foot rather than encouraging the muscles to engage.”
She says this basically results in weak feet being forced into the shape and position of the shoe, which is usually quite different from the foot’s natural position.
“Our toes, once being the widest part of our feet, are now placed into a narrow toe box that decreases their function even more,” she notes. “As a society, aesthetics are often more important than function, but if we aren’t careful with our shoe considerations, we can increase problems with our feet.” That could 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 out without shoes. “Shoes offer our feet protection from rocks, glass, and other debris that could cause injury to your feet. They also offer shock absorption for our joints,” shares Dr. Hanson. And they offer some padding in case you, well, mistakenly drop a weight on them.
Also know that if you’re performing exercises with higher-impact movements, you’ll have to slow down, lower the height of any jumps, and rethink your landing when you’re barefoot. Though you could always work out on a cushioned mat or carpet.
When should you definitely wear sneakers?
While working out barefoot can be okay for some people, certain foot conditions, biomechanical issues, and medical conditions make it impractical, or even unsafe.
“With some foot conditions, like plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuroma, it can be very painful to walk barefoot, especially in the morning. People who experience decreased sensation in their feet, like those with advanced diabetes or some experiencing complications from herniated discs, should not go barefoot,” says Dr. Hanson. “If the feet are unable to communicate information from the floor, there is a very high chance for injury.”
You should also always wear shoes if the ground you’re working out on is uncomfortable or unsafe (hot pavement, for instance).
Keep in mind…
If you want to work out barefoot, consider the type of exercise you’re doing. Dr. Hanson says bodyweight exercises are great to do barefoot because your toes are saved from the risk of dropping weights on them. “Pilates, yoga and martial arts are all performed barefoot,” she adds.
But if you want to go for it with higher impact HIIT classes, weight training, or even running, Dr. Hanson advises you start small.
“If you always wear shoes, stay barefoot indoors one to two hours a day. During those hours, actively try spreading your toes apart or grabbing a towel with your toes,” she suggests. “If you would like to try going barefoot outdoors, walk in your front or backyard for five to ten minutes. Try grabbing grass with your toes. Notice the way the grass feels on your foot. Enjoy!”