Bernard O'Shea: I walked barefoot on gravel and noticed my posture improve instantly

My 3-year-old will never get shinsplints the way he paddles about on the gravel
Bernard O'Shea: I walked barefoot on gravel and noticed my posture improve instantly

Bernard believes the things that join our legs to the earth are there for a reason

Picture the scene. A six-year-old shouts at me, "Dad, where are my shoes and socks?" I take a deep breath and reply, "I told you. If you take off your shoes and socks and throw them away, I'm not responsible for them." "But I want to go outside." I take another breath. "I told you to stop taking your shoes and socks off when you come into the house. 

For some reason, my kids automatically take off their shoes and socks and go barefoot the second they enter our house or anyone else's abode. It's gone to the stage where they now mimic me when before I warn them, "I'm Daddy. Don't take off your shoes and socks. I'm Daddy."

I know that in a broader context, the issue of removing your footwear before entering someone's home is a hot topic. In my observations, I have identified three camps. 

Those who are converted to the Nordic charms of removing one's shoes and leaving them at the door to save their delicate carpets. Those who don't want people with sweaty socks or worse (in my children's case) sweaty feet on their floors. They might begrudgingly allow us to enter their hallowed halls but might say in as friendly a tone as possible, "you wouldn't mind giving them a quick wipe on the mat?". 

Then there's the third camp, those who don't give a toss as long as you keep your shoes and socks on.

I'm in the third camp. I don't know why it annoys me so much that my children discard their shoes immediately when they enter the house. But it does. I've asked them why they do it. The response never changes. "Ugh, I've answered that a thousand times, Dad. I told you I don't know, ok."

I found a fantastic article that could answer why our kids do this on an Australian preschool website. It cites that when children's brains are developing, "being barefoot provides an opportunity for sensory input — which in turn helps stimulate neural or sensory pathways which are important for the development of motor skills, and the development of proprioception." 

It also went on to say that it could help build solid feet, increase awareness of safety and overall, have a soothing effect. So the new question was — could it help an adult? An adult like me?

The internet is always full of articles extolling the virtues of walking barefoot. There is also a strong narrative that soft soles and athletic runners have destroyed our feet. Some like myself have become cover converts to wearing leather-soled boots and shoes to strengthen their feet. Although I warn you, it takes time, and I live to tell a particular horror story — cutting my heels to smithereens breaking in a pair of boots.

I've also dabbled in earthing; something I thought I'd never do and being a skeptic, found it (dare I say) to be a beautiful experience. But going forward, will I walk barefoot for long periods? I'm not so sure. We have homegrown examples of it in Ireland. Every year hundreds of people climb Croagh Patrick barefoot. But this has its origins in penance. I selfishly wanted some benefit.

It's thought that walking barefoot also may help increase strength and flexibility in your legs, muscles and ligaments, improving your feet's functionality, reducing foot injuries, and improving your posture and body balance. "It can also give you entirely new body sensations, stimulating reflex areas in the feet that benefit the entire body", according to MD Thordis Berger, a medical doctor who writes about foot health on the blog of Holmes Place, a chain of wellness centres across the UK. 

But my most significant eureka moment was when I saw our youngest, 3, walk across an entire yard of gravel completely barefoot without as much as a squeak. A simple observation reminds you that we have these things on the ends of legs for a reason. It was almost magical to see how his tiny little toes moved like a centipede independently of each other and how his small little foot reacted to every little bump and pebble. I decided to give it a go myself. The first thing that hits you is how painful it is. Why did I think this would be an excellent introduction to barefoot walking? I can't even stomach a pebble beach or gravel driveway.

No, it's not some sort of cult initiation, Bernard O'Shea is testing the benefits of walking barefoot for, well, for his own benefit
No, it's not some sort of cult initiation, Bernard O'Shea is testing the benefits of walking barefoot for, well, for his own benefit

What is interesting, and you could do this right now, is how we clench our feet on uneven ground. It's a movement I never do because I'm always wearing shoes. It's also bizarre how I tried to use my heel more to find a spot, gradually and slowly bringing my foot down onto the surface. But the most beneficial thing I noticed after my heroic 3-minute solo walk across a gravel driveway (Tom Crean has nothing on me) was when I reached the shores of the level and smooth footpath. I stood upwards and straightened myself, and I could feel a little "click" in my lower back. It reminded me of the episode of The Simpsons when Homer discovers that falling over a dustbin fixes his back.

To make sure I wasn't hallucinating, I did it again. The outcome was the same. I looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings trying to walk less than 100 meters on hard gravel, but once I stepped off onto an even surface, I immediately sprung upright and self-corrected my hunched gait. Why?

Patrick McKeon, PhD associate professor at Ithaca College School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, says being barefoot can improve your balance and posture.

"If you say 'core stability,' everyone sucks in their belly button," he said. Part of the reason is about appearance, but it's also because a strong core is associated with good fitness. The comparison between feet and abs is intentional on McKeon's part; he wants people to take the health of their "foot core" just as seriously. 

I have a new rule. So instead of doing my regular 1000 crunches a day (more like a Crunchie every Friday), I'll be hitting the gravel, and not the bench press. As for the kids taking off their shoes every day? I don't mind, but "I'm not helping you look for them."

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