On a sunny day, it’s not uncommon to see students walking around campus without their shoes on. They’re equipped with a backpack and regular school attire and though they keep the same pace as their peers, their lack of footwear makes some cringe and others wonder.
According to aerospace engineering junior Riley Ormiston, the Cal Poly barefoot trend started with the Instagram account @calpolybarefooters, which features the “finest Cal Poly SLO barefooters.” He said the trend hadn’t gained much traction until recently when he noticed an unusual number of barefooters around campus. There were so many that Campus Dining had to bar them from entering on-campus dining complexes.
Shutting off autopilot
However, Ormiston started going barefoot for a different reason. He stopped wearing shoes when he broke his only pair on his way to class. By the time he received his order for a new pair of shoes in the mail, he had already committed to walking barefoot.
“The reason I keep doing it is because college is such a precious time in peoples’ lives and it goes by in a blink of an eye,” Ormiston said. “I found myself really dissatisfied my freshman year because I felt like I had been on autopilot for most of it. What I realized was when I wasn’t wearing shoes [was that] you can’t go on autopilot. You have to be constantly aware of your surroundings, how you interact with your surroundings and you just really can’t miss a moment.”
Ormiston walks barefoot no matter rain or shine. The only times he considers wearing shoes depends on how hungry he is and how likely it is he’ll be kicked out of a restaurant. While he isn’t sure exactly what the physical benefits are of walking barefoot, Ormiston said mentally, walking barefoot can be both relaxing and cleansing, like digging feet into the sand during a beach day. The pain that comes from stepping on pebbles or gravel is minor to the feeling of being grounded.
“There is kind of something really nice about having that contact with the earth,” Ormiston said. “It’s really calming and it’s like, ‘you know what, no matter what happens, the ground is still going to be here.’”
According to Dr. Rex Stevens, a chiropractor for the San Luis Obispo Wellness Center, walking with shoes causes a heel-to-toe drop, a decelerating and unnatural motion for the foot.
“If you think back to the Looney Tunes, like the Road Runner, often they are going towards the edge of the cliff and they dig their heels in to slow themselves down,” Stevens said. “It’s a decelerating motion and not a great human motion if you’re trying to make yourself energy efficient.”
Stevens explained that walking with shoes moves the angle of stress from the foot to the muscles that move the joints of the ankles, knees and hips. When people restrict their natural mechanics by wearing shoes, inadequate pressure in and around the bones in their legs often make them vulnerable to problems with the the iliotibial band, the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin.
Switching to a barefoot lifestyle isn’t ideal for everyone, especially for seniors or people with foot trauma. Even for a healthy person, suddenly switching to being shoeless could be too severe and may damage the soft tissue in the foot. Stevens suggests using two or three sets of shoes with progressively lower millimeter drops between the heel and the toe before going completely barefoot. He also said if there was any time to start going barefoot, it’s between the ages of 18 and 22.
“For the general population, it is worth it,” he said. “Getting back to the basic mechanics of foot strike is a very positive thing, we just need to get back to it gradually … The benefits are endless, not just for the feet, but also for the knee, the hip and the spine.”
Betsy Shwartz, a certified and licensed massage therapist and reflexologist of 32 years, said it’s better to walk barefoot for two main reasons. One, it allows a person to articulate all the muscles on their feet without confinement, which keeps them strong. She said muscle tone in the foot is lost when people wear shoes because the ankles are really what’s moving the foot.
Secondly, she said walking barefoot helps keep people grounded and walking as nature intended.
“My thing is if you’re going to walk barefoot, walk on something natural whether it’s grass, sand or dirt,” Shwartz said. “Our authentic selves need to be in nature, that’s when you’re going to harmonize and reach equilibrium.”