It probably comes as no surprise to anyone in my life that I am happiest when I am outside, sans shoes. This particularly crunchy habit was instilled in me from a very young age: my fondest childhood memories are summer weekends spent at my grandparents' lake house, where going barefoot was practically mandatory—all the better to transition from land to water and back again, and to climb all the boulders that line the property. As the temperatures began to rise each spring, my siblings and I would actually begin ditching our shoes in our own yard so that our feet would be callused in time for those glorious days by the lake.
In contrast, most of my adult years have been spent in urban environments that aren't really conducive to open-toe shoes, much less traipsing around barefoot. It wasn't until I recently moved to a new apartment with some outdoor space that I began to remember just how good connecting my feet with the ground feels.
If this all seems like some first-class hippie shit, just know that there's actually a name for this phenomenon, as well as some interesting science behind it. Earthing, also known as grounding, is the simple act of walking barefoot outside—and preliminary research suggests that it can counteract stress and anxiety, boost your mood, and even reduce inflammation.
How does it work?
To understand how earthing works, it's first important to know that our bodies actually generate electricity: You probably remember from high school biology that every cell is made of protons and electrons, and our nervous system basically communicates with those cells by sending electric currents.
The earth also carries its own complex electrical system, and when we make direct contact with it, those two systems interact with each other. The earth carries a very negative charge, and going barefoot (or touching the earth in any way) actually results in a charge exchange.
Preliminary studies show that the electrons that feed into our bodies from the earth may actually function as antioxidants. They neutralize free radicals (which are unpaired positive ions), which, when in excess, can push the body into a state of oxidative stress—something that has been connected with inflammation and many diseases such as cancer.
The current research on the impact of earthing is limited but fascinating nonetheless. One study, for example, found that a group of subjects who were "grounded" to the earth (via a specialized mattress pad) slept better, found their pain reduced, and experienced less stress, thanks to reduced cortisol levels. Another connects earthing to a better immune response.
But there are other benefits to being barefoot, too
For one, just spending time outside and interacting with nature have been shown to be significant mood boosters, not to mention it helps regulate cortisol, our "stress" hormone.
Also, remember when those "barefoot" running shoes were all the rage? That's because research shows that walking (or running) barefoot is easier on our bones, muscles, and joints. It helps evenly distribute pressure across your feet and greatly reduce the force of impact on the ground. (Thanks to the shock-absorbing buffer of your average shoes, we tend to really slam our feet down. Going barefoot forces us to have a lighter gait—which results in more controlled movement and more muscle tone to boot.)
This isn't at all to suggest that you should start running barefoot through the streets—in fact, please don't—but should you have the opportunity to take your shoes off in sanitary (and socially acceptable) fashion, consider it good for your health.
Up next, here's how "human rewilding" can increase your overall well-being in 20 minutes.
Oschman JL, Chevalier G, Brown R. The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. J Inflamm Res. 2015;8:83-96. doi:10.2147/JIR.S69656
Müller E, Pröller P, Ferreira-Briza F, Aglas L, Stöggl T. Effectiveness of grounded sleeping on recovery after intensive eccentric muscle loading. Front Physiol. 2019;10:35. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00035
Kobayashi H, Song C, Ikei H, Park BJ, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Combined effect of walking and forest environment on salivary cortisol concentration. Front Public Health. 2019;7:376. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2019.00376
Franklin S, Grey MJ, Heneghan N, Bowen L, Li FX. Barefoot vs common footwear: a systematic review of the kinematic, kinetic and muscle activity differences during walking. Gait Posture. 2015;42(3):230-239. doi:10.1016/j.gaitpost.2015.05.019