This is something I meant to post about ages ago, but forgot about. Via Denyerec, I read an article which suggested that going barefoot is healthier for your feet. It's a long article, but an interesting one, and confirms a suspicion I've had for a long time that shoes -- even sensible ones -- constrain your feet and make you walk in an unnatural way. The conclusion seemed to be that heavily padded shoes make people plant their heels down much harder than they would with bare feet, thus placing more stress on all the joints of the leg. With no heel or sole padding -- after a period of adjustment -- people walk in a more fluid, softer way, placing the heel gently and rolling smoothly from the heel to the forefoot. Walking without shoes can also improve stability by allowing you to sense the form of the substrate, adjusting your balance and grip with small changes in the shape of the foot and the force applied.
I enjoy going barefoot when I can, because I love the sensation of the variety of textures under my soles. However, the local pastime around our way seems to be smashing glass bottles, so I usually only go barefoot at home or in the garden. When I first went to Brazil, I was amazed by the guides going barefoot in the forest, given that there were so many thorny branches and spiky leaves on the ground. Most people in the rural areas go barefoot most of the time, and our guide said he preferred to do so in the forest because he could move quietly. He did indeed move silently, while the rest of us clumped and rustled along like a herd of heffalumps1 in our heavy boots, despite trying to walk quietly. His soles were as tough as leather from all the barefoot walking.
Denyerec linked to some 'barefoot' shoes made by Vibram called FiveFingers, which have an extremely thin, unpadded sole (just a thin layer of rubber to keep your feet clean and protect you from sharp stuff), and allow you to move each toe independently. They look intriguing, and I'd love to try a pair. I think that your feet would probably hurt like mad for a couple of days as they got used to the lack of padding and you changed the way you walked, then they'd feel wonderful. Has anybody got a pair? If so, what are they like?
1 I nearly wrote 'elephants', but elephants move almost silently, except when pushing trees over. ↑