Hiking is good aerobic exercise for everyone. Walking over uneven terrain strengthens muscles from the feet up to the lower back.
Hiking in shoes reduces the feedback necessary for stability on uneven terrain. Wearing thick soled, high topped boots is the worst. Boots nearly eliminate all feedback. The thinner the soles and the more flexible the shoes, the better the feedback. Extrapolating from that idea leaves bare feet as the best possible means of obtaining the most feedback from the trail.
Personal experience bears this out. I used to hike in heavy boots and twisted my ankles numerous times. I do not face that risk when barefoot. Should I place my boot in an unstable position, I can't detect it until I place full weight on it. This is often too late and I am unable to correct it. Should I place my bare foot in the same unstable situation, I can feel the instability much sooner. This allows me to shift my weight sooner, preventing a potential twisted ankle or fall.
Medical studies have shown that wearing shoes often results in landing hard on the heels. This can result in damage to ankles, knees, hips and the back. Walking barefoot is naturally a more gentle motion that is easier on those joints.
Thoughts of hiking barefoot sometimes evoke images of bruised, bloody toes and soles. The reality is that bare feet landing correctly are not likely to be cut up on most natural surfaces. Compare that with the frequent blisters, risk of twisted ankles and the detrimental skeletal effects of hiking in boots and hiking barefoot is usually a healthier alternative.
There have been numerous studies on the effects of shoes on human physiology. Shoes not only have an impact on the feet, but on ankles, knees, hips and the back. Some studies have been collected and are accessible on the Society for Barefoot Living Bare Feet in Medicine page.
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