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Orthotics, Low Support Shoes, or Barefoot: Which is Better for Foot Health?

A friend and long-time yoga student who suffers from plantar fasciitis recently asked me a great question about conflicting ideas on the best path to foot care. Her plantar fasciitis had flared up and was creating considerable pain. She has been researching the benefits of barefoot living and has been working hard on her feet. During this flair up, her doctor recommended supportive, soft shoes to help things heal, However, this advice seems to go against the growing body of research which suggests that we need to get free of our dependency on orthotics and supportive shoes in order to rehabilitate our feet back to the natural and abundant abilities of bare feet. So, what is the right answer? How can she best help her feet through this flair up? Should she wear shoes or not? This answer is applicable to ALL feet, so if you are a mammal who has feet, this article may be of interest to you!

Like so many things in life, the answer to this question is not black and white, not one or the other. A balanced approach, based on individual history and changing circumstances, needs to be considered. In order to better understand the situation, let’s first get acquainted with a few fun facts about the feet that will help us better understand the topic.

Barefoot walking is indeed the gold standard of healthy, happy feet, and how well we can walk barefoot is a direct reflection of how healthy our own feet really are. Twenty-five percent of all of the bones in your body are found in the complex mechanical structures of your feet where 33 joints, 26 bones, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles, all work together to bear weight, allow for locomotion, and transmit force. Fascially, each foot has 5 lines long of connective tissue that run all the way up the body converge around the skull. These continuous lines of fascia run deep and superficially up all sides of the body, encompassing, connecting, and coordinating all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments which allow us to move our body through space and breathe. On a more local scale, our 33 joints and multitude of smaller fascial lines and intrinsic muscles allow the foot’s triangular base of support to create a comprehensive set of movement options which enable stability and balance while creating an important communication network which informs all movement in the body.

Osteopathic doctor and author, Phillip Beach, points out in his book 'Muscles & Meridians: The Manipulation of Human Shape,' that these small muscles controlling individual movements in the joints of our feet, along with certain innervations to the skin on the sole of the foot, carry direct neural chains from the feet up to the lumbar spine, which in turn has its own set of intrinsic muscles. These neural chains form a reflexive feedback loop which shares information directly between the feet and the lumbar spine, a sort of information expressway. The intrinsic muscles of the spine are its deepest muscles of support, spanning the length of only a single vertebra each. They work together to level pressure around the spine so as to protect the height of our intervertebral discs, and allow weight to shift around our structure without crushing any part of our central nervous system. As the bones of our feet move and navigate over uneven terrain, information is transmitted from foot to lumbar spine regarding terrain, slope, textures, temperature, weather, and other environmental indicators about the land we are moving across. This information is received by the intrinsic muscles of the spine, which in turn adapt their individual muscular activations to help keep us upright in gravity while protecting and moving our central nervous system through space.

For a real-world example, imagine you pick up a large log and balance it over your right shoulder, you would dramatically increase the pressure and compression on the right side of your spine and, in turn, your intervertebral discs and associated nerve chords. If the deep intrinsic muscles of your spine each engage correctly, they can help to resist this one-sided pressure, maintaining a safe disc height and reducing your risk of injury. If, while carrying this log, you start walking over rough terrain through the forest, the task of spinal protection gets much more complex! To maintain balance and safety you would need and a highly effective combo of intrinsic strength and mobility, unobstructed neural communication, and a high level of foot intelligence!

Next, let’s talk about electromagnetic fields. Everyone has one. Animals, plants, the planet, we are living in an electromagnetic reality of interacting fields. Interestingly, the human foot has the ability to ‘plug-in’ to the electromagnetic field of the earth, using it to create resonance which rebalances and strengthens our own electromagnetic rhythm and field. This improves circulation and immune function, reduces stress, balances our nervous system, and synchronizes all of the various biorhythms of the body. Additionally, the soles of our feet are also able to absorb electrons and negative ions directly from the earth’s soil. Your immune system functions optimally when your body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot contact with the Earth. Research indicates that electrons from the Earth have antioxidant effects that can not only protect your body from inflammation and its many well-documented health consequences, but also reduce the rate of aging in the tissues of the body.

With all of these incredible functions and important rolls to play, it’s easy to see why, anatomically, the foot is considered to be more than just a collection of bones and joints. In fact, it is actually classified as one of the body’s ‘sensory organs’, and developed in utero off with your eyes, ears, mouth, nipples, genitals, and hands. When operating in a healthy manner, over a life time our feet will walk enough steps to carry us all the way around the planet four times, all the while helping to regulate our internal organs, systems, and bio-rhythms, detoxing our tissues, informing our nervous system, removing our inflammation, and keeping us young and healthy!

However, key to keep in mind here, is: this is how healthy feet operate! So, the big question in need of consideration is, how healthy are the average person’s feet today? How healthy are your feet? How often do your feet have the opportunity to move over uneven ground? How often does the skin of your feet feel the textures and sharp rocks of nature? How many minutes a day do your bare feet spend touching bare ground? What is the intelligence level of your feet? If you are like most of modern humanity and have been wearing shoes since you could walk, there is likely plenty of room for improvement!

Wearing shoes, to the feet, would be the equivalent to leaving our house everyday with a blindfold and noise cancelling ear protection on. The lack of movement, lack of contact with the environment, and the soft or over-supportive linings, force our feet to go out into the world deaf and blind. They become weak and lazy from lack of use. In shoes, our feet can’t move very many of our joints, and without movement, the neural feedback loop which controls the reflexive and protective communications with our spine becomes quiet as the flow information ceases. Over time, neural chains may weaken or even disintegrated due to lack of use, leaving us open to compression and degeneration in our spine, and arthritic or calcified joints in our feet which can no longer move or fully sense. On top of this our cushy shoes combined with our perfectly flat streets, stairs, buildings, sidewalks, and even the soft carpets and underlays on our floors provide the lowest common denominator of foot education, resulting in the majority of us having feet which have either never learned natural movements in the first place, or have forgotten these lessons long ago due to neglect and lack of use.

Modern humanity’s feet have indeed hit an all-time low in terms of health and happiness. In pain and desperation, many of us turn to our doctors or chiropractors who in turn tell us that our feet need more support, recommending orthotics and special cushioned shoes. In turn, our feet get softer and weaker and the cycle is perpetuated. Modern research is now showing us that the key to restoring the health of our feet is in allowing them to regain their natural barefoot abilities.

So, what do many of us do as we become aware of the healing benefits of bare feet? We start practicing barefoot walking at the park, buy ourselves a pair of ‘barefoot-shoes’ and become devout practitioners of the Barefoot Revolution! Enthusiasm aside, an all-or-nothing approach to barefoot reclamation may lead your feet into inflammation, damage, and further pain!

In reality, foot transformation is something that takes time and dedication, but remember, the human foot is a highly adaptive and complex structure! A dedicated and patient practice can result in incredible improvements at any age. Atrophied muscles need to be strengthened and rehabilitated, tight and adhered tissues need to be lengthened and repaired, skin needs to thicken and desensitize, joints need to be lubricated and mobilized, old neural pathways need to be reconnected and strengthened through habit, and new alignment patterns need to be learned and mastered. Since we use our feet constantly, sometimes our efforts might be too much and we experience pain and inflammation, sometimes we fall or move the wrong and way, creating new damages to contend with. Sometimes we forget to drink enough water, stretch, or properly prepare our tissues for day’s exertion. In reality, and all-in approach to restoring natural abilities to your feet will be an up-and-down kind of process, and so should your approach to your foot care routine.

When your feet are experiencing pain, inflammation, or swelling, soft supportive shoes or orthotics may indeed be the best option! This allows your tissues to take a break so they can recover and get back into a zone where rehabilitation efforts can be resumed. If you tend towards foot pain, or have a foot condition, wearing supportive shoes when you have a long day on your feet is also a good idea to avoid over-use, and practice your barefoot excursions in shorter, controlled exercises. When your feet feel flared or painful, it’s a great idea to use a frozen water bottle as a foot roller to help reduce inflammation, massage your feet and gently stretch your toes apart from each other with your fingers or toe spacers, do gentle ankle movements, and kick your feet up for at least 20 minutes a day to reduce swelling. Rolling or massaging your calves and shins, or stretching your hips and legs can help loosen fascial pressure and increase the rate of healing.

When your feet are feeling comfortable, it’s time to practice strengthening, alignment, deeper stretching, and barefoot conditioning. Try to vary your barefoot walking surfaces. Learning to walk on rocks and gravel is an important part of the conditioning process, but start slow. Practice alignment and engaged walking on grass or soft surfaces. Remember that concrete is asphalt block the earth’s electromagnetic connections and is less beneficial than ground contact. Over time as your skin thickens and the nerve endings toughen up, things will get easier and more challenging surfaces will become manageable. Don’t rush the process, slow and steady wins the race.! In between barefoot sessions, do the same routines you would during a flair up or pain. It will help things adapt faster and more efficiently.

If you are realistic and kind to yourself in your efforts, little bit by little bit, you’ll be able to start spending more time barefoot, and less time in your orthotics. With enough effort, one day you’ll be able to travel barefoot with ease, just as nature intended!

We invite you to join the Barefoot Revolution, and start learning how to care for your feet on a whole new level!


Want to learn more about how to begin the process? We often offer workshops on this topic, and regularly cover it in Erin’s Virtual Therapeutic Repair Classes on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s. If you would like to request a Virtual Foot Therapeutic Class, please email: and we would be happy to arrange one!


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