Some of the claims made by the manufacturer:
1) Strengthen your foot and lower leg muscles
2) Improve range of motion in your ankles, feet and toes
3) Stimulate neural function for improved balance and agility
4) Improve posture by removing heel lift, which aligns the spine
5) Allow the foot and body to move naturally
It’s important to know that many of these claims were also made by the recent shaping shoes. If you’re not aware, Rebok has issued several million dollars in refunds based off the false claims of their “shape ups”. It’s also important to know that especially with feet, when you are experiencing pain from a current position or movement, any change often feels better at first. These effects often wear off after the first 2-4 weeks of use however, and the pain returns. Ask anyone who has gone through a few pairs of generic insoles.
So let’s look at the first claim. Do barefoot style shoes strengthen your feet and lower leg muscles?
No. Exercise and movement will strengthen your feet and legs. Any research I have read on the subject is completely subjective and basically a marketing piece of its own. Third party research shows no such thing as a significant fact.
Do barefoot style shoes improve range of motion in your ankles, feet, and toes?
In short, walking barefoot or in barefoot style shoes can improve range of motion if your range of motion is limited. Will it increase range of motion in a healthy functioning foot? No.
Any good coach will tell you that range of motion is critical for joint and tissue health. Hard-soled walking shoes and sneakers can limit the range of movement, and distort the movement of the pattern of the foot. Over time this can decrease the health of the joints and muscular and connective tissues in the foot. For most people though, it’s not their gym shoes that are causing dysfunctions in their feet from all the hours they spend at the gym. It is the high heel and hard soled shoes worn at the office and the shear lack of movement.
We did not evolve to spend 8-16 hours per day on our butts either. If you are having problems with your feet, make sure you start addressing the proper causes. So if your feet are tight from being in heels all day, switching to a five toed or free motion type shoe will help restore some flexibility if you’re standing and walking a lot. Wearing them while sitting at your desk isn’t going to make much of a difference.
To answer claims 3-5.
The foot has biomechanics that it was evolved for just as any other part of the body. The foot is designed to support our bodyweight and give feedback about the stabilizing surface to the brain which can then properly contract all the muscles for movement and balance accordingly. The closer you are to barefoot, the more accurate and true in nature the feedback you will get from your feet.
So the more barefoot feel a shoe has the more natural the feedback will be. Any change in foot position will effect posture, however there is almost a zero chance that addressing just the foot will create optimal posture. It’s only a start. It’s important to address all the postural muscles in the legs, core, torso, back, and neck to achieve optimal posture.
As far as improvements in agility, this is a far-fetched claim. A person would have to be significantly impaired to see a noticeable improvement in coordination from just a shoe switch. Agility can actually only improve 10% after age 12. If balance and coordination are lacking, drills to restore proprioception are the best. These drills should be performed barefoot in most cases, so this would be a time where the barefoot style shoe would be superior to a sneaker.