What a great question!
I love it when people ask me questions which allow me to explain the wonders of barefoot walking.
Interestingly, it’s only a question in our minds because we’ve worn shoes outside for most of our lives. As citizens in the developed world we’ve forgotten what our feet are & how to use them.
Before I went barefoot outside I never imagined I could do it. In fact it never occurred to me to even try!
But what’s interesting is our bodies are designed for it. Let’s face it, our feet were not designed for shoes. Admittedly, we now have modern surfaces which can be abrasive & glass which can cut, but with care these small risks can be managed.
In fact, having been a podiatrist for 28 years & barefoot for over three years, I’d say the risks of foot problems come far more from shoes than barefoot. The scientific, clinical & observational evidence from around the world over the last 100 years has clearly shown our feet are far more likely to be injured by shoes (any shoes) than from living a barefoot lifestyle.
Back to the question, how do our feet cope outside?
The skin on our feet & palms is uniquely capable of reinforcing itself into several millimetres thick tough layers which can withstand most rough surfaces & sharp objects. It is six times more abrasion resistant than the skin of our thighs. It’s not like pathogical callous which grows as a result of shoe wearing, but is pliable like soft leather. Of course it takes time to grow more resilient skin, but this gradually increases with use. Also, when our skin presses onto a sharp object the skin folds up away from the object as an indentation because when barefooted the skin is flexible & not held tightly bound, as in a shoe, so is less likely to be penetrated.
The other natural protection is our nervous system which has upto 200,000 nerve endings in each foot ready to feel the textures, temperature & safe placement of the feet & we can react in a split second by removing our foot or adjusting our pressure distribution away from the potentially unsafe surface. This nervous system adaption takes time too. Initially the nerve endings are ‘dazzled’ by the sudden cacophony of sensory nerve stimulation, which gradually moderates & allows us to differentiate between different textures etc & just like in our hands helps us make sense of the surfaces we touch.
Interestingly, this sudden reaction & weight redistribution is very helpful in training our core stability muscles as we constantly shift our bodies centre of mass.
The fact that we are barefoot is a motivator to more careful foot placement in itself. Just like when we are bare-handed, we subconsciously protect the delicate skin of our fingers from abrasion, paper cuts, staples, door jams etc without even being aware, this is true of our feet. We strangely, automatically become much more aware of our surroundings. Subconsciously we look ahead to plan our foot placements so as to avoid animal poop & dangerous objects.
It seems that all our senses are collectively & subconsciously enhanced by the synergy of working together, whereas when we cover the skin of the soles of our feet we actually cut off a very important area of sensory input to our brain. Without the skin sensation from my feet I can honestly say that I would now feel handicapped!
Since going barefoot these last 3 years I’ve noticed my balance has improved amazingly, the strength of my feet is superb, I no longer have the foot & leg pains I previously suffered from, my low-back pain has gone, & the wonderful, exhilarating feeling of connecting with nature is unimaginable.