Flats, Heels, Bare Feet – what is really good for your feet?



There have been comments on my post about flat shoes about the ‘health’ aspects of flat shoes, are they just as bad as heels?  Should you have no heel, a small heel?  What sort of other support do your feet really need?

I have to say, I’m of the opinion that we are made to walk in bare feet, if we’d needed some heel support, our body would have made more padding and lift on our heels naturally, so having a heel on a shoe is not good for our posture or the way we walk.  In fact, we are not supposed to walk with the heel striking the ground first, but in fact for our foot to land more in the middle, which it apparently naturally does when not wearing shoes.   Most people have shortened their Achilles tendon by wearing any sort of heel (even the quite low ones found in many of the supposedly better, more supportive shoes), so wearing completely flat shoes becomes uncomfortable as it stretches it out.

The only problem with not wearing shoes is the issues of cut feet, so we have to put something on them to protect them from the environment.  Hard concrete and asphalt is not so fun to walk on with bare feet.  From an article in The New York Magazine:

Last year, researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, published a study titled “Shod Versus Unshod: The Emergence of Forefoot Pathology in Modern Humans?” in the podiatry journal The Foot. The study examined 180 modern humans from three different population groups (Sotho, Zulu, and European), comparing their feet to one another’s, as well as to the feet of 2,000-year-old skeletons. The researchers concluded that, prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet. Among the modern subjects, the Zulu population, which often goes barefoot, had the healthiest feet while the Europeans—i.e., the habitual shoe-wearers—had the unhealthiest. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Bernhard Zipfel, when commenting on his findings, lamented that the American Podiatric Medical Association does not “actively encourage outdoor barefoot walking for healthy individuals. This flies in the face of the increasing scientific evidence, including our study, that most of the commercially available footwear is not good for the feet.” (read the rest of the article)

pic from NY Mag

I have to say that even though I love my shoe collection, I find all shoes uncomfortable in some way, flat, heels of all heights and particularly anything with an ‘orthotic’ or arch support are the worst for me.  I do a lot of barefoot walking, round my house, and outside my house and in the park on the grass.  I’ve always walked barefoot where possible and my feet are probably the stronger for it as they are not reliant on padding.  If you look at the pic above, you can see that shoes make us walk differently.    Interestingly, after looking at this picture I got up and walked around my house, wearing very flat ballet flats, and noticed that I tend to walk more like the barefoot picture than the shoe picture example, probably as I spend so much time walking without shoes already.

The reality is, I will still wear shoes, I don’t really want to spend my time surrounded in the shops or restaurants by bare feet, and I’ll still wear my heels, but again, I wear them to walk from the car to somewhere where I know I’m going to sit down.  But I’ll stop feeling middle-class guilt that my parents tried to instill (they never went without shoes) that somehow I was not proper running around the house and garden in my bare feet.

My chiropractor has always recommended walking round the house in bare feet, she thinks it’s better for both my feet and my spine than wearing shoes.

What do you think? Do you walk around without shoes on?  Do you find it comfortable or uncomfortable?  

I know that there are a lot of people who make a lot of money out of us selling us scientifically created shoes with lots of different padding features… but isn’t that what manufacturers do, create a problem and then sell us the solution?

What’s your opinion on this study and how we walk and whether or not shoe manufacturers are selling us support we don’t really need?


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  • I'm a barefoot Sydney girl, always have been. Ballet flats are my shoe of choice for leaving the house (or midwinter, when it's just too cold for bare feet). I wear something more supportive when I have to walk long distances, but I can't tolerate heels at all (back problems) so I'm always on the lookout to find dressy enough shoes that I can actually bear to wear. It doesn't help that years of going barefoot have broadened my feet, making it even trickier to find shoes that fit.

    PS Thank you for your advice re jacket shopping in Melbourne. I had to end up with black — there wasn't anything else — so I will just have to travel with some scarves!

  • I´m also a barefoot girl. I can wear only comfortable shoes — fflat or almost flat, that stay on my foot, and most importantly have a flexible sole. I need the freedom such shoes give me. It´s ridiculous when women make little mincing steps, and can´t walk (or dance) because of the shoes they choose to wear.

    There was a really interesting video about the way barefoot runners run, vs shoe-clad runners. Apparently, even people who ran in shoes all their life reverted instinctively to the forefoot-first strike when running barefoot. The forefoot strike abosrbs the schock, since that part of our foot is amazingly springy.

  • I think the left side of the picture is wildly exaggerated… I mean, who wears these concrete shoes (in sneakers, as pictured) that do not allow the foot to move one bit, thus you stomp around like an elephant? Sheesh. Of course, high heels are a different deal here – you need your shoes to hold you in tightly here or else you'll fall over 😉
    Otherwise, I agree – we are made to walk barefoot, and our feet as they are are made to work best. No need for extra shenanigans. Thus, it is best to walk barefoot, but as long as your feet are healthy, there's nothing wrong with wearing any shoe style you like once in a while, just as long as you don't overdo it on the high heels and keep a good ratio of high and low shoes 🙂

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  • I go barefoot all the time at home, and in one of my primary forms of exercise (belly dance) I dance barefooted or just with unpadded jazz shoes to help my feet slide a little. When I have to work and be around people, I like low heeled (but not completely flat) shoes — I find about a 1" heel to be more comfortable than either a ballet flat or anything higher.

    Last year I did try wearing those "barefoot running" shoes. I wore them in Zumba classes for several months. Then I developed a forefoot problem (Morton's Neuroma — it's a nerve swelling and you feel like you've always got a pea under the ball of your foot) that I had never had before and eventually went back to padded shoes.

  • It's normally too cold to have bare feet, but it's one of my best summer or holiday pleasures, bare feet and short sleeves. I do find I want a bit of support when walking longer distances, but I expect that's a sign of age as I didn't used to need that.

  • I love this post. you are absolutely right about all shoes having something not so hot for the feet! too bad the whole world could not be made of plush carpet (that some how magically stayed clean so we could all go barefoot!

  • If it's not too cold, I am always in bare feet. And, when I work out at home, I work out in bare feet. Sneakers feel so wonky to me. Stiff flat shoes make my feet hurt, mostly because I have high arches and I feel like I am compensating for the stiffness of the shoe.

    I have also had a terrible time with running shoes. I feel I never have a proper stride as I would in bare feet. And the cushioning would make my stride not natural, then making my knees and Achilles hurt. I just recently bought the Nike Free running shoes that are as close to barefoot running as I believe you can get in a shoe, and they are fantastic! Now I can feel myself using my feet and using a proper stride, all the while my feet are protected.

  • "I'm of the opinion that we are made to walk in bare feet" – yes, ON SOIL, not on pavement. I also enjoy going barefoot (or in socks) at home and on grass or sand, but on hard pavement and hard floors, I love my shoes that are *almost* flat, stay on my feet easily, have a bending sole, etc. I used to wear regular shoes, then switched to comfort brands like Naot, Merrell, Clarks, Mephisto, etc, and I can feel a big difference – I am much more comfortable despite walking a lot.

    – tall & slim anon

  • I'm with you. I'm usually in sheepskin slippers at home – very close to flat but warmer. Out and about it's 90% flats. My kids even went to a school where they didn't have to wear shoes:). Californians, I suppose, but there's something to it.

  • Like commenter Cynthia, one of my primary forms of exercise is bellydance, and we go at it barefoot in my dance company. I take Zumba class barefoot too, and I always kick off my shoes as soon as I get in the house. So, yes, I too, spend a lot of time without shoes when given the choice, and I like to think that I have pretty strong feet because of it.

    That said, I loves me some shoes, and I'm making an effort to get into the higher quality ones that allow my feet more range of movement/flexible soles/etc.

  • When I was little, there was talk of not walking barefoot because it makes your feet get wider (which is less pretty, supposedly). Only on sand was it considered beneficial, because of the heat I think.

    – tall & slim anon

  • Fabulous post!

    I'm pro-barefoot when possible— I even went through a barefoot-at-all-times phase in college, skipping shoes even at school. This was New Mexico, though, so I got big, blistering burns on the soles of my feet.

    I still wear Vibram Fivefinger shoes for exercising and love them dearly. I wish more shoes had such flexible soles.

  • Looks like we're all in the bare-is-best camp! I love going barefoot and have been told a) do it often and b) never do it, by different podiatrists! I have tried barefoot running, and like it, and tried running in the Nike Free shoes as well as cushioned. I still get tendinitis and shin pain, so I'm not sure.

    And Lili–I have shoes that are quite stiff and so my feet do move (or not) like the picture on the left. I try not to wear those too often!

  • I love walking barefoot on the beach cause I feel the "massage" in all my spine. It actually corrects my posture and the stifness my column can be acumulating. Healing!

  • After decades of wearing "killer shoes" (almost literally) I have ruined one of my feet and have to wear more suitable shoes now. The hunt for stylish yet supportive shoes has been an odyssey. I am not ready to give in and wear Grandma shoes yet. However, on your comment about bare feet – my podiatrist said absolutely never to go barefoot. For my particular problem (Morton's Neuroma) it makes everything worse, apparently. So I bought some orthopedic type slippers (Orthaheel) which I wear around the house and then I wear prettier but still as supportive as possible shoes out and about.

  • I prefer being barefoot (love it!), however I used to get yelled at by my mom all the time when I was younger for not wearing shoes. I have to say, if you're somewhat clumsy it's actually dangerous to walk around barefoot in the house (for me, anyway). Last year I hurt my toe kind of badly (didn't break it, luckily); the nail turned purple, it hurt like hell, and took about 4 months to finally grow back. I try to be much more cautious when barefoot now (with my mom's nagging echoing in my head). I found Crocs that are actually cute ("Olivia" sling-backs:http://sports.engelhorn.de/images/product_images/575/867/3666/11267.200.C.v1.360×430.jpg) and I wear those around, so the toes are protected.

  • I agree, we may be made to walk barefoot, but not on hard, solid surfaces. I had a bone spur about 15 years ago. It was extremely painful. My podiatrist told me to wear shoes with a heel between 1 and 2 inches. I have ever since and never had pain again.

    Flat shoes generally have zero support and usually there are no soft surfaces to lend your foot support. Plus I think flat shoes exaggerate any natural tendencies one has to pronate and make lots of women look like they are walking like a duck.

  • I went barefoot growing up in Queensland (with grass and dirt underfoot), and I suspect it contributed to my extremely wide feet. Despite my early barefootedness, and never wearing anying higher than a medium heel, I now need to wear orthotics all the time and can't go barefoot.

    Like many of your commenteers, I am not ready to wear grandma shoes just yet, and splurge on dressy flats whenever I see them.

    I was told by my podiatrist that going barefoot is fine for really young children, but there comes a point when the padding thins and ligaments change so kids (and adults!) should ultimately wear (well-fitted, supportive) shoes.

  • I also grew up 'barefoot in Queensland' and have very wide, highly arched, bony feet + bunions + hammer toes and have needed to wear orthotics since age 25 (I've never been able to wear heels so they are not to blame).

    My best friend was a barefoot hippie until increasing foot pain stopped this about aged 40. Now she can can't walk for more than 30mins at a time.

    Maybe genetics is to blame.

    My podiatrist recommends shoes with 1-2 inch heels, supple and padded with good arch support – heaven! I search high and low for shoes that feel like slippers but don't actually look it!

  • Great post. While I walk around barefoot at home, I like shoes with a very small heel. I find flats are often painfully thin and I feel like I'm walking on concrete. And wearing high heels means I cannot walk too far which is also a pain. When I finally find a pair of pretty shoes that I like, I wear them until they cannot be worn anymore, even after repair.

  • Barefoot all the way! If I must protect the bottom of my feet from a rough surface then I will wear flip-flops! Fortunately I live on the Island of Roatan, where I can get away with that. After four years of not wearing shoes, when I go back to Canada for a visit with family and friends (in the dead of winter)I've tried wearing shoes to protect against the cold, but my toes start screaming at me, no matter how well the shoes fit. I get a lot of funny looks, but I'd rather have cold feet in flip-flops rather than force my feet into shoes.

  • I'm an Island gal from Maui and barefoot's the norm at home – sandals when I go out. Gotta admit though, still enjoy dragging my heels out of storage for the rare "dress up" opportunity.

  • I'm barefoot most of my day, since I don't like shoes in the house. I slip on sneakers for outside play time with my girls. But the minute I have errands to run the heel height goes up. And up and UP if it's date night! 🙂 I love my heels.

    I also think the left side was greatly exaggerated. Even in stiffer loafers my foot flexes.

  • I am kind of late to this conversation, but i found it very interesting. In Canada most people take their shoes off in the house. Growing up we were taught it is very rude to wear shoes in the house. When I lived in the US for a few years I noticed people always wear their shoes in their own and other people's houses, which was a bit of a shock. A cultural difference I guess- but I am most comfortable barefoot at home.

  • Growing up in the Top End, Northern Territory, I went barefoot all my life until I started travelling. Wearing shoes was a terrible shock to my feet 🙁 giving me all sorts of problems. They recovered when I returned to the Territory, and was able to go mostly barefoot again.

    But a few years ago my arches collapsed badly. A podiatrist said I had "Darwin foot syndrome". Yes feet are designed to be bare, she explained, but they were never designed to walk constantly on perfectly flat, hard surfaces such as ceramic tiles or wood, which are ubiquitous to Darwin homes.
    It is exacerbated in people who are naturally very flexible, as I am. The ligaments are too flexible to support the feet properly in the face of this flat hard assault on them. She recommended I wear supportive thongs such as orthoheel ones around the house, and do strengthening exercises.

    Nowadays I have settled on barefeet whenever I am on natural surfaces, or uneven ones like a rough slate floor. But on our ceramic tiles at home I wear my trusty support-thongs. The rest of the time I go for soft-soled shoes, preferably with an arch support but that allows my feet to move as naturally as possible (The podiatrist explained what to look for).

    For dancing – latin style, I have three pairs of shoes, flats, for most of the practise, low heels for some practise, and high heels for dancing in dressy social setting. For the record the podiatrist despaired of all my dance shoes!

    I figure for me, the answer is variety – the more ways my feet and lower legs are used, the stronger healthier they will be in the long run.

  • I always wear my ballet flats barefooted year around even if it is cold out. I wear them barefooted for style and comfort.

  • Being a Filipino, I was raised to not wear shoes in the house, so I tend to go barefooted in the house. But the tiled floor in the family room and kitchen areas can be dirty or cold, so I'd wear flip flops, which is my version of house slippers. Living in Texas, it doesn't get very cold all winter, but if I do get cold, I'd wear socks.

  • I have 2 protruding discs in my lower spine, the BEST thing I did was to throw out all my shoes with a heel on em and get flat shoes. Wearing shoes even with the slightest heel would give me tremendous pain in my lower back. The flat shoes do not give me any pain in my back whatsoever. The funny thing is, if you search online about this, most sources tell you to wear a heel, thats alot of baloney and I am living proof!

  • I am an Indian and we walk barefoot inside our house. So i do the same now in the US too. One of the reasons we do that is it is good for the feet to walk barefoot as much as possible according to our ancient medicine.
    I dont understand why people in the USA walk with their outside shoes inside their houses, do they like getting the world’s dirt and germs inside the house where they live? How or why did it begin?- sincere question. I also have one more question on this contaminants aspect- why do people put their handbags on the floor in the public restrooms? do they realise that they are picking up the bathroom related yuckiest germs onto their bags and then they carry around their bags with pride and touch it and go on as if it were clean.
    Especially these days when they complain about allergies and all- dont they see they are getting the contaminants in their house by doing this?

    Coming to my flats or heels for my footwear question- I am really not sure what is good or what is bad with so many contradicting things- but wearing flats gives me pain in my arches and heels and on the other hand I dont have any problem and in fact love when I walk barefoot which is positionally like wearing flats.
    So I wear moderately heeled footwear.

    • I don’t know why you feel pain with flats but not heels. I’m wondering if you have to scrunch up your toes at all to hold onto the shoe and that’s why you get pain?

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