How Minimalist Walking Shoes Improve Strength and Balance
A whopping 70 percent of adults report that they walk for fitness. This is according to a fitness study conducted by Fitbit, which collected data from more than 10 million people around the world. It found that the most common form of exercise is walking. And it’s no wonder—walking is accessible, relaxing, good for heart health, and can be a lighter-impact form of exercise, so people of all ages are more likely to lace up.
An added bonus walkers may not be aware of is that, with certain thoughtfully designed minimal shoes, walking can help you make meaningful improvements to your strength, posture and balance, too. These are great reasons to welcome minimalist walking shoes into your walking routine.
Benefits of Minimalist Walking Shoes
Also called barefoot walking shoes, this type of footwear includes flat, flexible insoles and more space for your toes. These shoes skip the arch support and thick cushioning common in most commercial walking shoes. Such designs lead to a much freer range of foot motion, as the cushioning isn’t there to restrict the foot’s natural movements. This is also the design philosophy behind every shoe designed and handcrafted here at the Softstar workshop.
As several studies have suggested, without the “crutch” of cushioning and arch support, the muscles in your feet, and those extending into your legs, naturally become stronger. Some people quip that getting active in minimalist shoes is like adopting a weightlifting routine for your feet! This overall boost in strength has big implications for your balance and posture. That’s because weakened muscle strength is one of the top reasons we develop poor balance or posture in the first place.
Dr. Ray McClanahan, a podiatrist with 18 years of experience who is a proponent of minimalist shoes, explains that there are three common features of “traditional” shoes that cripple our foot strength, balance and posture:
- Wedged (or elevated) heels
- Toe boxes that curve upward (sometimes called “toe spring”)
- Toe boxes that taper and squeeze our toes together
Going totally barefoot or wearing minimal shoes with a wide toe area lets your toes space apart naturally, meaning you actually have a more stabilizing and slightly more triangular shape to your foot (in which your toes form the wide edge of the triangle). This shape creates an optimally balanced foundation for your body. When walking in minimalist shoes, you are also closer to the ground, and you can feel and react to the surfaces beneath your feet more acutely, which may help you feel more balanced and grounded. The National Institutes of Health says working to maintain good balance is important because it means you’re better able to control your body’s position when moving or still, which helps prevent falls and injury, especially as you age. Plus, studies show that improving your balance can elevate overall athletic performance.
An article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine explains that strong, properly developed foot muscles form a stable “core” for our bodies, similarly to how strong abdominal muscles are part of a stable core. The article directly relates running and walking in minimalist shoes as part of forming this strong core. It says, “Barefoot/minimal footwear walking and running may be used as a training tool to strengthen the foot core system.” The researchers note that wearing minimalist shoes as we walk also increases the sensory input transferred between the surface of our feet and our brains, and that this level of sensory input has long been recognized as being important for postural stability and healthy, dynamic gait patterns.
This “postural stability” relates to how balanced you feel and how you hold your body in alignment. Are you unsteady, drooping forward or leaning back? Or are you keeping your body straight and your spine naturally curved but upright? Certain posture problems when sitting, standing or walking can be traced to weak muscles or muscle imbalances. Improving overall muscle strength, including the kind of strength you can build in minimalist shoes, can be an important element in helping you overcome poor posture.
Minimalist Walking Shoe Styles
If you’re ready to start improving your strength, balance and posture through barefoot walking, you’ll be able to choose from several minimal shoe styles. While our RunAmoc styles are popular among barefoot runners, they’re multipurpose athletic shoes that will work wonderfully for walking.
If you like to venture out on hiking trails to get your walking in, you might opt for a slightly thicker-soled minimalist walking shoe to help you navigate the terrain. Our Original RunAmoc and the Dash RunAmoc come with the option for either a 2-millimeter Vibram street sole or a 5-millimeter Vibram trail sole. The thicker of these two zero-drop soles is still incredibly lightweight and flexible.
Seasonality may play a part in your favored shoe style, too. You might like the warm, sheepskin-lined Phoenix Boot to keep your feet protected during wintertime strolls. In summer, I’ve logged many miles walking sockless in my ultra-comfortable Merry Janes.
Making the Switch to Minimalist Walking
Instead of tossing out your cushioned trainers right away, make a plan for gradually transitioning out of them and into your minimalist walking shoes. Exercise scientist and running coach Jenny Hadfield says our bodies atrophy with the supportive nature of modern-day shoes. A slower and more deliberate transition can help you stay injury-free as you build foot strength and adjust to your new kicks.
As you make this transition in footwear, it’s also the perfect time to evaluate your walking technique in general. Is the way you’re setting your foot on the ground when walking ideal for healthy, pain-free feet?
Please note: while we’re shoemakers who are passionate about foot health, we’re not doctors. Consult your health care practitioner as you develop an exercise routine, address foot issues, or address concerns related to muscle strength, posture or balance.
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Sources consulted for this article: