Walk on the wild side: go barefoot
Prepare to go barefoot this summer: feeling the ground beneath your feet while taking a stroll in the woods, through a lush meadow or even across a muddy field is not only wonderfully liberating but is also the natural way to get fit and boost your overall wellbeing. By Lucy Dimbylow
On a warm summers day, few things feel more natural or pleasurable than kicking off your shoes and feeling the grass between your toes. And what is, for many of us, an instinctive response to a lazy afternoon in the sun is set to become this years hottest new fitness trend. Those in the know are swapping the gym for the great outdoors and their expensive trainers for bare feet, getting fit and reconnecting with nature at the same time.
The barefoot movement was the brainchild of Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th-century German pastor and naturopath, who claimed that going shoeless stimulated organ function, strengthened the immune system and promoted the bodys healing abilities. Our European neighbours have been embracing the barefoot philosophy for some time. The first barefoot (or Barfuss) trail opened in Germany in 1992, and since then, an estimated 100 of these parks have sprung up throughout Europe, mainly in Germany and Austria.
Until recently, we Brits have been resisting barefoot principles, encasing our feet in increasingly more highly engineered trainers and walking boots. But now, were catching onto the trend. In 2008, the UKs first barefoot trail opened in the grounds of Staffordshires Trentham Estate, with a variety of sole-stimulating surfaces to walk on including pebbles, mud and water. Barefoot walking holidays are growing in popularity, and even shoe manufacturers are cottoning on, with several ranges of footwear on the market claiming to replicate that barefoot experience. The movement has many celebrity fans, too, including Jonathan Ross, Bear Grylls and Ben Fogle.
So why go barefoot? Well, for a start, walking or, for the more hardcore, running without shoes makes your body work in the way that nature intended. We were designed to be barefoot and to walk on uneven terrain, but these days, we do most of our walking in closed shoes, on concrete surfaces, says physiotherapist Sammy Margo, spokesperson for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (www.sammymargo.com). As a result, our bodies have forgotten how to move properly. This can lead to complaints including hip, knee and back pain and poor posture a problem that affects over 50 per cent of us, according to 2010 research from the British Chiropractic Association.
Going barefoot strengthens the muscles in the arch of the foot, which helps to realign your body and makes you walk more upright, explains osteopath Gavin Burt (www.backsandbeyond.co.uk). Its also fantastic for your sense of balance. Feeling the ground through your feet stimulates the nervous system and reminds you to stand up straight. And given that poor posture can lead to problems from joint pain to headaches to IBS, this could have knock-on effects on our overall health.
If you take care to avoid stinging nettles and pointy stones, barefoot walking could also make you less susceptible to injury. Recent research from Harvard University found that people who run barefoot suffer fewer sporting injuries than those who wear trainers. The difference is that you move much more carefully when youre barefoot, says John Woodward, an Alexander Technique practitioner who leads courses in barefoot running (www.naturalrunning.co.uk). It encourages you to be more mindful about how youre using your body, which helps prevent injury.
Surprisingly, barefoot walking even helps reduce the strain on your joints compared to wearing trainers. A 2010 study from the University of Virginia found that even high-tech running shoes could cause more joint stress than going barefoot, potentially leading to long-term problems such as osteoarthritis. It strengthens the muscles that are responsible for shock absorption, and also changes the way you walk, explains Gavin Burt. In trainers, you tend to land on the heel of your foot, which channels the stress straight into your knee. Barefoot, however, you plant the ball of your foot first, reducing strain. As well as protecting your joints, this improves your walking or running technique and helps you conserve energy.
Alongside being a more natural way to move your body, barefoot walking or running helps you embrace the great outdoors, and in turn, increases your motivation to get fit: when the sun is shining, a walk in the woods is a far more appealing prospect than an hours slog on the treadmill. Going barefoot is much more fun than wearing shoes, and if youre enjoying what youre doing, youre likely to push yourself harder and go further, says John Woodward.
Swapping the treadmill for the park could help you feel not just fitter, but happier, too. New research from Devons Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry shows that outdoor exercise reduces levels of tension, anger and depression, increases energy and enjoyment, and makes it more likely that youll stick to your fitness regime.
Walking barefoot on different terrains also has reflexology-type benefits, which can leave you feeling calmer and revitalised. The sole of the foot is one of the most sensitive parts of the body, with 220,000 nerve endings on each foot, says John Woodward. When you take your shoes off, it boosts the sensations going through your whole body, which is incredibly refreshing.
Alison ONeill, barefoot shepherdess and founder of Shacklabank free range walking holidays in Cumbria (www.shacklabank.co.uk, CL November 2011), agrees. Barefoot walking makes us slow down and rediscover a sense of freedom that takes us back to childhood, she says. Feeling the different textures beneath your feet and concentrating on where youre walking helps you forget your problems: its wonderfully relaxing and liberating. In fact, a survey of participants in the Green Gym scheme a campaign encouraging outdoor physical activity found that an amazing 100 per cent felt it had improved their mental health.
Strolling barefoot through the meadows certainly sounds appealing, but while walking on lush grass or cool pine needles is without doubt a pleasurable experience, dodging countryside hazards such as cow pats, thistles and stinging insects is rather less so. The good news is that thanks to the increasing range of barefoot shoes on the market, such as the Nike Free (£70, www.store.nike.com), Vivo Barefoot (from £49, www.vivobarefoot.com) and the revolutionary Vibram FiveFingers, with their individual toe pods (around £90, www.vibramfivefingers.it), you can get that shoeless experience without the worry of stepping in something nasty.
These shoes boast extra flexibility to allow your feet to move more freely and ultra-thin soles to maximise sensory input, based on research showing that the brain gets 70 per cent of the information it needs for movement via the soles of the feet. They strengthen parts of the foot that are restricted by normal shoes, meaning you can walk further with less fatigue, says Gavin Burt. They also give you an extra layer of protection, which is especially beneficial if youre new to barefoot walking.
As with starting any new fitness regime, experts advise caution if youre a barefoot novice. Before you start barefoot walking, you need to be fit to walk in general, says Sammy Margo. Youre using your body in a way that its not accustomed to, so to avoid injury, it needs to be a gradual progression, starting with going barefoot around the house or garden. Its also worth cancelling your summer pedicure if youre planning to go shoeless: You need that layer of hard skin on your feet for protection, Sammy adds.
But if you tread carefully literally going barefoot is the natural way to strengthen your body, improve your posture, boost your mood and get back in touch with nature. Barefoot, you stand more upright, walk in a more coordinated and mindful way, and experience sensations that you just dont get when youre wearing shoes, says John Woodward. Taking off your shoes is like opening a treasure chest full of unexplored possibilities. It puts the joy factor back into your exercise regime. After all, where would you rather be on a sunny day: stuck in a stuffy gym, or walking barefoot through the woods?
Want to get fit and enjoy the environment at the same time? Then try one of these exercise trends...
Swimming in natural stretches of water rivers, lakes or sea is a great way to explore Britains waterways, and the cold exposure leads to physical health benefits including reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels. www.wildswimming.co.uk.
A scheme encouraging you to improve your health and the environment at the same time by volunteering with practical outdoor conservation or gardening projects. It boasts health benefits including stress relief and increased muscle strength. www2.bctv.org.uk
Springing up in parks around the UK, these weatherproof exercise stations feature gym equipment from chest presses to cross trainers to sit-up platforms, so you can do your usual calorie-burning workout in the great outdoors.www.tgogc.com