New research out of Harvard University found that individuals who rarely or never wore shoes tended to have thicker natural calluses on the bottom of their feet, and this padding helps to provide extra protection without reducing the foot’s ability to sense the ground underneath them, unlike cushioned shoes.
Those were the findings of a research team led by evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, who took up barefoot running more than a decade ago. When he was running, Lieberman noticed that the calluses on the bottom of his feet began to grow thicker without seeming to lose their ability to sense the surface beneath them. To see if this truly was the case, he put his hypothesis to the test. He recruited 100 individuals in the US and Kenya to be part of his study.
After looking at the results, Lieberman and his team concluded that although the regularly barefoot group had calluses up to a third thicker than the control group, they were able to sense vibrations just as well as those with thinner calluses. The team of researchers believes this is because calluses transmit forces without dampening them, unlike the rubber of foam soles of many shoes.
Barefoot Callus Formation
You may be surprised to learn that this extra padding doesn’t affect sensation, but Lieberman says that a similar development is seen on the fingertips of guitar players. They tend to develop thick calluses as a result of playing, but they don’t lose any sensitivity because of it.
Lieberman and his team want to conduct additional research on the subject and hope to parlay their work into a better understanding of how people get information from their feet. They hope that additional research can help them better understand how to best improve balance and prevent falls in the elderly population by researching the benefits and drawbacks of shoes with different levels of padding.
“Any way we could figure out to help people fall less would be useful,” said Lieberman.
While it’s worth noting that the additional padding on the base of your feet can help to provide a little extra protection, it’s not as good at protecting your feet as shoes are when you’re on rough terrain. You may be keen to go barefoot this summer, but if you’re going to be walking in rocky areas or places with sharp debris, reach for the added protection of shoes. However, if you’re just going to be playing with your kids in the backyard, go barefoot and start building up that callus!