What you need to know:
- The more information you can get from your feet, the more stable your base and, often, the better your balance and posture overall.
To understand the benefits of working out barefoot, one ought to first take a quick look at the benefits of walking barefoot.
According to studies, barefoot walking, also called earthing, is beneficial because we are bioelectrical beings that carry a positive charge. Because the earth happens to carry a negative charge, it has been found that when we walk barefoot, we make an electrical connection with the earth and cause a healing effect at a cellular level.
Our bodies rely on electricity to run the nervous system for sending and receiving signals between every part of the body and the brain. Each cell has negatively charged ions on the inside and positively charged ions on the outside. Due to a slight imbalance between these positive and negative ions, electricity can build up in the human body and walking barefoot helps discharge that excess electricity, causing relief on a cellular level.
Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a sports doctor, says walking barefoot helps you get better foot control while walking, promotes optimum function in all the joints, muscles and ligaments, healthier knees as well as your hips and back, among others.
“This is why it is important to make sure that a toddler is allowed to learn to walk without shoes. Walking barefoot ensures that the toddler uses all the correct muscles in their feet and receives feedback from the ground. This improves their awareness of all parts of their body in space,” he says.
He adds that the absence of shoe padding and shoe soles while walking barefoot promotes better gait and can even restore your innate gait after years of walking in shoes.
So, can the benefits of walking barefoot be transferred to working out barefoot? How safe is it to jog or hike barefoot, for instance? There is always a fear of hurting one’s feet on sharp stones or broken glass since jogging happens in public spaces. But when it comes to gym workout, the industry has historically pushed the wearing of shoes in the gym as a way to absorb shock, improve performance, provide stability and balance and prevent injuries. But that is starting to change, at least in part.
Lately, many gym instructors and exercise enthusiasts online are encouraging barefoot workouts. They assert that working out barefoot maximises benefits to include improved mobility, coordination, increased foot strength and balance. The simple act of letting your feet connect with the ground, Dr Ntegge says, does wonders to your body.
“Working out barefoot helps increase sensory feedback from the feet to the rest of the body, improving coordination and spatial awareness. The muscles also tend to work harder in the absence of support provided by professional gym shoes,” he said.
One study followed a team of netball players and found that playing barefoot improved their ankle stability and agility.
While this is a popular practice online, serious gyms in Kampala are still insisting on shoes in the gym. One instructor at a top Kampala gym said barefoot workouts are prohibited because of fear of injuries at equipment such as the treadmill.
“I have seen some of our clients attempt to exercise without shoes but we don’t allow it at the gym. We try to keep incidences of injuries as far away as possible,” the gym instructor said.
The gym operator we talked to says he knows the benefits of barefoot workouts but he is more aware of the risks since his job comprises a great amount of keeping his clients safe.
“Working out without shoes can do more harm than good. Many people have very soft soles which might prove a bad idea in case of a misstep on a treadmill. Also, in instances where one hits their foot on a piece of equipment, the shoe will protect them, and being barefoot will be detrimental,” he said.
Experts advise that to get the benefits of barefoot workouts, one must listen to their body to see if their body can handle it or not. If it hurts, stop.
What if you cannot go barefoot?
Some gyms and studios require sneakers and you might want a layer under your foot for added hygiene in other spaces. Socks are also an option if you want a layer between your feet and the floor, you will not gain the same sensory benefits but you can still feel the floor better than in shoes. (experts suggest wearing a pair of socks that offer a little extra grip.).
And if you definitely need a sneaker for your lifting sessions, opt for a more minimal pair, aiming to avoid those with a heavy heel-to-toe drop.