Balancing act: the many benefits of being barefoot

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Children who spend a lot of time running around barefoot could be developing better jumping and balancing skills.

A recent study examined the difference between kids who grew up mainly wearing shoes and those who did not. And it found many benefits of kids going barefoot.

"Walking barefoot is widely thought to be more natural, and the use of footwear has long been discussed as an influencing factor on foot health and movement pattern development," said lead researcher Professor Astrid Zech.

"We wanted to investigate, for the first time, whether changes in foot biomechanics due to barefoot activities are actually relevant for the development of basic motor skills during childhood and adolescence."

Two research teams from Germany's University of Jena assessed the motor skills – balance, standing long jump and a 20-metre sprint – of 832 children from North Germany and the Western Cape South Africa.

They found that kids who grew up wearing no shoes were noticeably better at jumping and balancing.

"Physical education classes, exercise and sport programs, and recreational activities that aim to improve basic motor skills could benefit from including barefoot activities," Professor Zech said.

"Parents could also encourage regular barefoot time at home."

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Podiatrist and founder of the Running Lab Tim Bransdon said going barefoot was beneficial for kids.

"The muscles, bones, joints and tendons in children's feet are no different to those in the rest of the body in they abide by the common rule 'use it or lose it'," Mr Bransdon said.

"All shoes restrict natural movement and function of the joints and muscles within feet.

"While it is not practical to be barefoot always in our modern world, our choice of when children wear shoes, and what they wear, has a huge impact on the health and function of their feet."

  He said there was a strong correlation between time spent barefoot and balance.

"I perform simple balance tests on every child who attends my clinic - standing on one foot as well as balancing on the balls of both feet - and those who do well tend to spend a lot of time actively playing and living barefoot," he said.

  "Children's feet are 4WD's for their bodies. The 33 joints in each foot are designed to bend, twist and mould to the ground underneath them.

"Every barefoot step on natural uneven terrain is developing and reinforcing good balance, adaptability and strength."

Founder of the Barefoot Movement, podiatrist and dad Paul Thompson said he hoped the findings of study would create some healthy conversation around the over reliance of footwear in younger children. 

"Clinically I have seen a trend toward children being put into 'supportive' and 'cushioned' shoes at younger and younger ages, which I believe is resulting in compensated movement patterns and misaligned posture," Mr Thompson said.

"If children are having to compensate for the shoes on their feet, it makes sense that motor skills will be negatively affected. 

"I find children are developing dysfunctional movement patterns from a very young age and lack basic skills such as balance, which is most often linked to the over reliance of supportive shoes."

He said parents needed to be careful when buying shoes for their kids.

"The biggest problem I see as a podiatrist is children being fitted with rigid school shoes that stiffen and weaken the feet," said.

"Poor footwear causes postural changes and quickly leads to dysfunction in the feet as well as in the hips.

"Ill fitting shoes squash the feet and limit 'normal' movement of the foot which can lead to flat feet, arch pain, bunions and ankle, knee and hip alignment issues." 

He said parents should buy shoes with the following characteristics:

  • Flat - no heel raise.
  • Floppy - not too rigid through the sole of the shoe. 
  • Wide around the toes - check by pulling the insole out and making sure it matches the shape of the natural foot in a standing position. 
  • Un-cushioned - remember the body is able to adapt to different surfaces and absorb shock.
  • Keep the toes flat - try and find shoes that are flat under the toes and don't have what is referred to as 'toe spring'. Ensure the toes sit flat on the ground. If the shoe curls up at the end (when the foot is in the shoe), it can change the natural function of gait and posture.