What’s so good about barefoot walking?

Emma Swann
A man's barefeet stepping on a rough wooden path.
Image by Sandro Gonzalez from Unsplash.

Barefoot walking is one of my favourite activities to offer people on forest therapy walks, as a way to connect with our sense of touch. It also sparks strong emotive responses - there’ll be some in the group who rip their shoes and socks off with glee, while others look noticeably disturbed at the idea. Why the intense reactions to something so seemingly benign? For most of our time on earth as a species, (that’s 6 million years for our ancestors and 200,000 years as modern humans) we’ve been barefooted. What’s the big deal?

Cultural conditioning has a big part to play in some people’s fear and mistrust of being barefooted. We’ve had it drummed into us since we were kids that we must wear shoes, that walking barefoot is dirty, unhygienic and dangerous.  And there sure are places in cities that it is just this with risks of broken glass and piping hot asphalt to contend with.

But with the safety of shoes, we lose something. The soles of our feet have literally thousands of nerve endings - around 7000 in each foot. These make our feet extremely sensitive to touch, temperature, pressure and pain (Streets, A. 2022 p. 140).

I’m always blown away by the incredible variety of touch sensations available through bare feet on even the most boring looking of lawns. To the eye it may seem like a monoculture of trimmed green, but to the naked foot it is a sensuous delight of textures and temperatures - from soft young grasses, rougher older ones and moist spongy moss patches. One notices the change in soil too - crumbly hummus to hard exposed clay, and even the slightest dips and indentations in the earth’s surface that are barely visible.

Image by Alexander Grey from Unsplash.

There are other benefit from barefoot walking too - researchers are discovering that our bodies actually absorb positive ions from the earth’s surface through the soles of our bare feet, which can help with inflammation (Sandler, M. and Lee, J. 2013). So there are tangible health benefits too.

All of this is either significantly dulled, or completely cut off by wearing shoes.

No wonder it can feel like a refreshing act of rebellion when given permission to free our feet from their shoed surroundings. Even 15 minutes of barefoot walking and purposeful attunement to touch sensation in the feet brings an energy of enlivenment, a spring in the step, of people who do it. An elderly English woman on a recent forest therapy walk raved about the barefoot activity - ‘it was evocative of my childhood’ she commented afterwards, her eyes glowing. 

So if a spring in your step and sparkle in your eye is what you're after - try some simple barefoot walking. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Sandler, M. and Lee, J. (2013) 'Barefoot Walking' Three Rivers Press, New York.

Streets, A. (2022) '52 Ways to Walk' Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

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