Why Walking Around Barefoot, Even At Home, Can Be Bad For You

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Sometime in the last year, I started getting pangs near the heel on my right foot. The pain was worse when I started walking after sitting or lying down, and I’d hobble for a while until it normalized.

After some googling, I realized I probably had plantar fasciitis, or inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of my foot connecting the heel to the toe.

The cause? Like many things lately, I’d like to blame it on COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, I became one of many people working from home, and I’ve continued to do so on most days since. Because I live in Hawaii, I pretty much never wore shoes inside, which is both a local custom and a practicality since you don’t need to warm your feet with fuzzy house shoes. When I went out, I usually wore a pair of basic slippers (flip-flops to you mainlanders).

All that walking barefoot on my non-carpeted house floors or out and about in unsupportive footwear got to my feet. So I had to switch things up. I now wear an arch-supporting pair of house shoes inside and got myself a pair of Vionic sandals so I can still have my slipper lifestyle but with a cushy sole. And it’s helped most of my heel pain go away.

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Walking Barefoot Can Cause Foot Problems

I’m not the only one with more foot pain since the pandemic.

“We do a lot more walking and standing at home than most of us realize; cooking, standing at the sink, chasing children, putting away laundry, going up and down stairs,” Marion Parke, a podiatric surgeon, told Marie Claire early in the 2020 lockdown. “Most people are surprised by how much walking they do while at home and how going barefoot at home can lead to problems such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, or something called metatarsalgia, which is essentially a focal or generalized pain in the forefoot where the metatarsal heads are found.”

Muscular foot pain isn’t the only reason you might not want to be walking barefoot. For one thing, if you already have some kind of foot condition, walking barefoot can actually make it worse.

Also, you’ve most likely heard you should wear shower shoes at the gym or in a public shower space to avoid picking up athlete’s foot or other fungi, viruses, bacteria and even staph infections.

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Can I Walk Barefoot Outdoors?

The great outdoors isn’t always safe either. As good as grass feels between your toes, walking on dirt and lawns may be a way for you to pick up a disease, particularly from wet or damp grass. Pseudomonas bacteria, which causes athlete’s foot, and the strain of HPV that causes plantar warts are among the potential organisms you’ll encounter while walking barefoot.

Parasites like hookworm or sand flea could even be lurking in sand or soil, though they are more common in countries with less sanitary conditions.

It almost goes without saying that you can also ding up your feet on rocks or small but sharp fragments. (Ask me about trying to get out the tiny glass splinter in my heel that I picked up from my driveway while walking barefoot.)

Going barefoot can also lead to dried-out and cracked heels. You’re more likely to have dry skin while going barefoot in the summer and winter when indoor heating can dry your skin out.

“A lot of people have dry skin — that’s just a lack of moisture in the skin itself,” podiatrist Priya Parthasarathy told the Washington Post in January. “When you have severely dry skin or you don’t treat that dry skin, it develops into what we in the medical world call fissures.”

That can be unsightly but also a health risk because bacteria enter through foot cracks. Diabetics who don’t have as much sensitivity in their feet and those who are immunocompromised or with other health conditions should be especially careful about picking something up through small fissures on the feet.

Walking barefoot or in socks can also lead you to fall more, especially as people age.

person’s feet shown walking on dirt road
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Are There Upsides To Walking Barefoot?

If you can look past all that, there are some benefits to walking barefoot.

Some argue going barefoot lets humans match their natural gait, improving posture and putting less stress on the sole. You can also strengthen certain foot muscles while walking barefoot and potentially protect your joints.

Some research shows that calluses offer similar protection to shoes without causing you to lose your connection with the ground, evolutionary biologist Daniel E. Lieberman told Scientific American in 2019. He also believes that cushioned shoes magnify the impact of your feet hitting the ground has on the body.

“The energy that gets shot up your leg is about three times bigger in a cushioned shoe than if you’re barefoot,” Lieberman said.

His study also mentioned that much more studying needed to be done on running or walking barefoot versus wearing shoes.

If you do pick up the habit of wearing shoes inside for more support, make sure you keep a pair just for inside so you’re not bringing the outside elements of dirt and bacteria into your house from your outdoor shoes.

Do you go barefoot most of the year or have you found yourself walking barefoot more since the pandemic? Or are you a strictly “shoes all the time” type of person?