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Going barefoot can improve mood & health (like forest bathing)

When Patti Smith released “Dancing Barefoot” as the second single of her album “Wave,” she was onto something. She dedicated the track to Jeanne Hebuterne, a French painter and wife of artist Amedeo Modigliani, who took her own life after the sudden passing of Modigliani.

“I’m dancing barefoot/ Heading for a spin/ Some strange music draws me in/ Makes me come on like some heroine [the word used here with ambivalence, but especially as the feminine of “hero”].”

Walking (or dancing, like the song) can affect our mood, perception, and, ultimately, our health.

Two of our three children playing in Cannon Beach (Oregon) back in the Summer of 2011; now they both go to High School; our youngest one was a baby back then; he’s sitting to the left of this picture in a less public manner

In the era of maximalist running shoes and a spike in inflammatory issues related to passive lifestyles, diet, and poor sleep, it’s worth looking into some of the things that work for us to improve our well-being, even if such routines have a mere placebo effect on some: believing can be a hell of a drug (hence the problem that sometimes represents organizations around groupthink such as cults).

Children know (if we get them the chance to explore)

My summers growing up would circle around simple things that somehow felt more luminous, raw, flavorful, and summer-fruit-scented than the rest of the year. Before heading with my family to the small villages they come from in Northwestern Spain, we’d take care of a garden plot we shared with my uncle’s family. The garden meant Sundays working in the garden in Spring and a lot of juicy tomatoes when we finished school and the long vacation started.

Produce and seasonal fruit such as watermelon were everywhere. Still, watery, starchy fruit never tasted as well as those days in which we would build makeshift shacks and run around until exhaustion, either in the garden or, starting in late June, at the beach near Barcelona. We’d take our shoes and go barefoot, even when it meant noticing the radically different way pavements would take and retain heat as the day went: we needed to be careful with concrete and sand but would always find patches of shade under near umbrella pines, where the pine needles would sometimes get poky.

Barefoot girl in Melbourne

One day, we were playing with a sand rake that had a net we used to catch crabs and colored stones. Its dents were very long and pointed, and a wave made me step on it in a bad position; I instantly felt the metal in the flesh of my foot arch and plantar area. I remember yelling, and I must have cried for a long time too, but it was noon at the beach, and if I wanted to stay in the water playing with my cousin, it was wiser not to complain and keep playing.

I quickly forgot I had a deep open wound in my foot by the time it was time to clean ourselves and get back in the car; once the foot was sand-free, high-iodine salt water had begun to heal the wound, which I barely felt walking. It didn’t get infected and healed very soon. Those days of intense play, most times barefoot felt like journeys of awe-inducing sensorial awareness.

Eating and sleeping when playing outside

When at the beach as a kid, we only stopped playing to eat something and fruit or bread (toasted on an open fire, rubbed garlic, rubbed tomato, olive oil, and sea salt) just tasted better. Sometimes, anchovies would make the bread even better. Gazpacho, cold salad, and juicy fruit were also aplenty. Adults dosed off after lunch, talking less vividly, and we’d go on with whichever project. At the end of the day, we’d breathe deeply, with our lungs open, and feel some chest pain.

We played at running around the humid sand, stepping hard on it as the water receded to leave a temporary footprint, and vanished through the sand before the next wave covered the trail with water a few seconds after.

In those rare periods of carefree play, we were no different from the Neanderthal children that left erratic footprints around adults’ regular trails around 100,000 years ago in the Spanish coast.

At home, after the shower and a light dinner with leftovers, we’d fall asleep right away, and sleep until the next day with the carelessness of lucky children. Little we knew that a day of play and direct contact with the elements was probably improving our sleep. After all, they may argue, many traditional societies and people living in developing countries develop the ability to walk barefoot for long distances, evolving wider feet than Westerners and a thicker skin underneath to avoid injuries. In our minds, even for those of us (most of us) who didn’t watch live on TV, is legendary Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila running barefoot in the streets of Rome, a gesture that turned his gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics into a first —and probably a last.

A day of play at the beach as a kid can have enduring effects; how about playing at the beach as an adult? You may sleep better right after

Radicals will be quick assuming that barefootness can be a viable lifestyle: why use shoes at all if we can feel the Earth below our feet and the sensations given to our sensitive extremities by basically avoiding shoes as much as possible?

But not all environments are naturally disinfectant as seawater (as long as it’s not heavily polluted, especially with nearby sewage) can be. Going barefoot can cause some known issues, from infection—including foot fungus or Athlete’s Foot—, and objects that can cause dangerous wounds. Walking barefoot is also unviable over hot or frozen surfaces.

When shoes were grounded and kept us feeling

There’s one reason padded protections made of skin or woven fibers appear early on in the Paleolithic. Anthropologists believe that changes in foot shape and toe strength determine that our ancestors began using footwear with substantial soles for protection and ergonomy around 40,000 years ago. Skeletons from Tiankyuan Cave in China show changes in the bones associated with a decrease in strain on the forefoot caused for the generational change of not walking barefoot anymore.

Cromagnon paintings in Northern Spain’s Altamira cave, painted 13,000-15,000 years ago, show the first unequivocal visible shoes in an anthropomorphic figure. However, the oldest partially conserved footwear dates from 10,000 years ago, for vegetable and leather shoes degrade quickly. Luckily, sagebrush sandals found near Fort Rock, were conserved under volcanic ash on Mount Mazama, now Crater Lake, Oregon) despite their prime being 10 millennia ago, whereas the oldest preserved leather shoes, from 5,500 years ago, were specially adapted for extremely cold conditions (Areni-1 is a leather shoe stuffed with grass for padding, preserved inside an Armenian cave).

CERES center, Melbourne, Australia

There are remnants of other early shoes across the world that include similarities to these two, suggesting a culture of adaptation to different activities and regions. When people needed to walk on uneven and extreme territories, shoes could preserve marchers from infection, heat, and cold. Ötzi the Iceman, a middle-aged, balding man who died wounded on an Alpine mountain pass more than 5 millennia ago, remained frozen under a glacier until the remains were discovered on September 1991; the remains were in such good shape that the sighters first believed they belonged to a modern mountaineer death some years or decades before.

Fads come and go; barefootness stays

The cold preserved several fragments of layered clothing, tools and armor, food on Ötzi’s stomach, and details of a tattoo, and an expert has recreated his boots too. Petr Hlavacek, an expert in calceology (ancient footwear), confirmed that the boots were protected by leather, padded with blackened hay, and small parts of twine. Its sophistication was remarkable: the shoes used calfskin on the bindings, deerskin on the uppers, and thicker, non-permeable bearskin on the soles. A net of thin barck strips stuffed with hay formed the lining keeping the shoot warm and cozy.

Ötzi, a 40-year-old shepherd working at high altitudes, had clothing adapted to the extreme conditions of mountain passes, albeit, like now, an injury and a snowstorm can decrease the survival odds dramatically, as it happened with mummified Ötzi: what was he escaping from? Petr Hlavacek explains that shoes like Ötzi’s offered more contact with the ground than most modern shoes do.

A few years back, Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run helped popularize a niche evolution of ultrarunning and, in parallel, of sporting shoes dubbed as “minimalist,” zero-drop shoes with little to no padding designed to approximate barefoot walking and running as much as possible. Brands like sole maker Vibram, also the maker of the glove-like Five Fingers model, experienced their cultural moment over a decade ago and pushed mainstream companies to sell their own minimalist competitors.

Building with clay in North Carolina

Then, the tables turned to the point that current trends have helped the rise of the opposite trend, chunky “maximalist” shoes offering so much padding that there’s little to no sensorial contact between feet and surface, and, once again, mainstream brands compete against Hoka and other niche brands with their own maximalist models.

After the success of Born to Run, walking barefoot, already a minority reality among non-conformitsts during the California counterculture (with people like Steve Jobs going around Palo Alto, Reed College, and an apple farm in Oregon with no shoes), gained popularity once again.

Effects on our health of being barefoot

Back when minimalist shoes were at the center of attention, a friend of us from Seattle who had moved to Barcelona with his family on a Sabbatical explained to me that his liking of McDougall’s book had set him experimenting with running shoes having little padding, which led to a months-long injury in an active man about to hit middle-age.

Running for miles while wearing gloves on one’s feet can have unpredictable consequences. My friend’s experience was the opposite of the book’s core argument, namely that cushioned shoes are the cause of many muscular-skeletal injuries. Modern humans, or at least some of us, can’t afford to experiment with no-sole shoes: if we aren’t habituated to walking (or running) with no shoes, our feet won’t have the ability to spread out the pressure of the impact as our body repositions every time we take a step.

Reminiscences of “The Goonies” for insiders

Commercial fads, contradicting books and articles, or ergonomy considerations are not at odds with growing scientific evidence: if done properly, walking barefoot can have positive effects on our overall health and mood. A 2022 study published in Healthcare, for example, shows how kicking off our shoes can increase the odds of having a good rest at night.

The study observed the therapeutic effects of grounding, or having direct contact with the Earth by lying on the ground and walking barefoot, improved sleep quality in patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. All the patients needed for the improved results were at least 30 minutes of such direct relation with the ground through parts of our body that concentrate high amounts of nerve capillaries.

Footprints at the beach

Human feet are complex machines capable of keeping us balanced in a bipedal position; to achieve such balance, our feet contain almost one-quarter of all bones in our body. When focusing on the feet to develop their traditional medicine, Eastern cultures were onto something: each foot has 200,000 nerve endings, 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Depriving such an evolutionary machine from experiencing any sensorial feeling with the ground at all times doesn’t sound like a wise idea.

Writers and storytellers, in general, will associate the concept of “grounding” with the need of any story for a sensorial connection with the reality surrounding any action. When a story is narrated with a lack of “grounding,” the theory says, it won’t be credible and engaging, and the reader won’t feel compelled to invest time in complicity that can’t be achieved.

The same goes for phenomenology, a philosophy favored by many existential philosophers in the early twentieth century, including Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. According to this particular vision of philosophy, human experience always carries one “intention,” and it’s always embedded in a particular reality, and hence our relation with action and the people and things that surround us make a dynamic construction of what we call “reality” but also “consciousness.” Like good literature, phenomenology depends on the individual’s grounding of particular things too.

Sea Ranch, Northern California

For well-being, grounding has psychological and bodily implications. Being in direct contact with the Earth’s soil doesn’t only come naturally to us but can help reduce inflammation, improve our mood, and speed the healing of wounds; these effects aren’t only caused by our contact with bacteria living in healthy, uncontaminated soil, but our long-lost bond with the Earth’s very energy on the surface.

Grounding: on staying connected with our surroundings (and our planet)

According to doctors and scientists supporting the Earthing Institute, when we come in contact with the ground, our circadian rhythm and bodily processes become recipients of small electrical charges caused by the Earth’s surface electrons:

“As an example, consider the effect of grounding on chronic inflammation, a prime agent of chronic and aging-related disorders, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, cancer, and even depression and autism. Earthing puts out inflammation and quickly reduces inflammation-related pain!”

If this hypothesis is correct and “earthing” or “grounding” restore an essential connection to the planet we inhabit, the more we try to protect ourselves from the elements, the more our overall health can miss that broken link with soil. We detach from the environment’s surface as we thicken our prophylaxis through synthetic layers of clothing, sterilized interiors, sedentary habits, and processed food.

“In past civilizations, humans walked barefoot or with footwear of leather. Today, we generally do not venture out barefoot except as kids romping in the yard or when we’re on holiday at the beach.”

Risks of fearmongering about residual threats

As I recall my days at the beach growing up in Barcelona many years ago, I find much sense in the message that some studies are suggesting, even when the evidence for several of the Earthing Institute’s claims seems, in my opinion, a bit too far fetched and New Agey. At the same time, outings in nature affect our appetite, sleep, and mood, as most of us have experienced first person, whether we call such experiences “forest bathing” or, like Thoreau, a mere “walk in the woods.”

Let’s not forget what a day out, if possible barefoot at times, can do for us. Australians or inhabitants of any place with life-threatening spiders or other animals can take the advice with a grain of salt; they’ll know the places where they can afford to go barefoot and the moments when it’s a no-go.

Reading Bill Bryson’d In a Sunburned Country will give any non-Australian the context needed in this particular regard. But potential bacterial infection (including flesh-eating types) or danger caused by animals (from ticks to sharks) shouldn’t help promote fear-mongering and misunderstandings about real risks in safe environments.

To the rest of us, walking barefoot—if only around the home once in a while and when possible—may open a new chapter in our perception and well-being.