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Barefoot exercising steps into disputed territory

As barefoot fitness gains momentum in the West, tension is building between its proponents and those who'd prefer they keep their sweaty soles off the treadmill.

People who prefer to work out barefoot at the gym have caused a stir on social networking sites. iStockphoto
People who prefer to work out barefoot at the gym have caused a stir on social networking sites. iStockphoto

Bill Allen is a New Yorker who likes to work out without shoes and he's putting his bare foot down about his right to do it.

"I tell people to understand their rights as barefoot people," he says. "They're exercising a choice. It's not illegal or unhealthy or a violation in any way."

As barefoot fitness gains momentum in the West, tension is building between those who agree with Allen and those who would prefer he keep their sweaty soles off the treadmill. With most experts agreeing barefoot exercise has its benefits for some, the debate ultimately comes down to the right to work out footwear-free versus the right to work out free of the sight of hairy toes.

It's hard to pinpoint when the barefoot fitness trend took off, especially since advocates argue it isn't a "trend" at all. The athletic shoe is a fairly recent invention and a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger lifting weights barefoot in the 1970s has been making the rounds on the web.

Around 2006, major companies like Nike started marketing minimalist sneakers and Vibram FiveFingers started selling glove-like shoes that get exercisers as close to barefoot as possible without skin touching the floor. The idea that too much cushioning leads to foot weakness and injury had gained popularity.

The natural next step was to ditch the shoes altogether, but that conflicted with the nearly universal gym policy: "Proper athletic footwear must be worn at all times." Running forums are full of would-be barefooters asking for tips on coping with weird looks and stern gym staff, while the people doing the staring are taking to social media to express their grievances.

"Totally grossed out by the number of guys at my gym working out without shoes on. Bare feet all over the weight room," tweeted Lisa Tant, the editor of Flare magazine.

"Why do people get grossed out? Is it because they realise how dirty the bottom of their shoes are and you're getting your nice clean feet dirty running on it?" countered a runner posting on the Runner's World forum.

Contrary to popular belief, there's no medical or hygienic reason for requiring shoes in gyms, according to the Washington, DC sports podiatrist Stephen Pribut. He says people who are susceptible to warts and fungi are much more at risk in damp environments such as showers and pools, the very areas where going barefoot is the norm.

"Everyone's got their rules. You just kind of have to go with it," he says. "If I saw someone barefoot in the gym, I wouldn't have a panic attack. I wouldn't be freaked out."

Martin Rooney, a mixed martial arts trainer based in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and an outspoken advocate of barefoot workouts, points out that many martial arts training rings and yoga studios actually require participants to take their shoes off.

"You could almost say it's cultural. Culturally, in a gym, it's not accepted to have your shoes off, whereas culturally in a dojo or a training hall, you have to have your shoes off; you're not allowed to have your shoes on the mat."

As for Allen, the graphic designer and nutrition coach in his 40s, he says he got sick of being hassled at the gym. It hasn't stopped him from going barefoot just about everywhere else, though - he's been going shoeless in New York City for more than a decade and maintains a blog coaching others on how to do the same.

If the world isn't ready for bare feet at the gym, it may be a tough sell to expand the trend to the grocery store and the office. But that's not phasing Allen.

"To me, it's basically a choice in what makes you comfortable, how you want to go. You may get stares or whatever, but walk with your head up. Know you're doing something beneficial for your health."

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