“So Pink Sneakers, what’s it gonna be?”
We had just reached a crossroads in the trail. If we went to our left, we’d go the easy route to get to the lake - likely seeing campers and others along the path. If we went to our right, we'd have a more technical trek which required crossing a river over a broken bridge.
My eyes lit up, “I don’t know about y’all but to the right seems much more exciting!”
Early Saturday morning, six of us showed up for a 7-mile backcountry hike that included rocks, roots, rivers, a moose and a +1,000 foot elevation gain. While on the way to the trailhead, I stopped to use the restroom and realized I forgot my shoes back home. I’m such a barefooter that I didn’t even notice I walked out of the house without them. I was over an hour from home and did not have time to return. I called up the leader and asked his opinions as to whether he thought I could hike barefoot. This was the first time hiking with this group and in this area so I was not sure what to expect. This trail would be a tough one to do barefoot, in his opinion. After hanging up I’m sure he prepped a list of psychologists in case, after meeting me in person, he felt it necessary to share.
I vacillated for a bit as part of me thought he probably just didn’t know what he was talking about. Moreover, I had recently bought new running shoes and the only store around was one I have strong convictions about shopping at. I was a bit disgruntled to have to buy new shoes, but out of caution I did. My conscience and pocketbook were contented when I found a pair on clearance for $5!
When I showed up at the trailhead in pink sneakers, I was immediately labeled the novice - the one that may end up requiring an air-vac out. Most people were polite, but Bubba didn't hold back. Those pink sneakers were the first thing he noticed when he got out of his car and, from that moment on, I couldn’t live them down.
In 2005, Richard Louv published “Last Child in the Woods,” a book in which he introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder”. This term is not a medical diagnosis, but a metaphor to describe the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies. Since that time, there have been a vast number of studies on the impact nature has on our bodies and all of it points to goodness!
Studies have shown spending time in nature can strengthen your immune system, lower blood pressure, improve memory and mental health, and reduce stress. Right now there has been so much concern about going outside, but when done taking the proper precautions, it’s some of the best ‘medicine’ for everything that is going on - COVID, the fights against injustice, a weakening economy, and living with the unknown.
While on our walk, the group leader asked me why I barefoot. My heart jumped at the question and immediately I felt a sense of peace within me. This is the sensation I get when I am barefooting and I was excited for the opportunity to share.
For much of my life I wanted to barefoot, especially while running, but early in my running ‘career’ I was told I needed shoes to not injure myself. In my late 20’s, after three marathons, I was struggling to enjoy running and did not seem to experience that ‘runner’s high’ no matter the distance I ran. Around 2008, I was introduced to vibram 5 finger shoes and then read “Born to Run” in 2009 - a book predicated on the notion that humans were designed to run barefoot. From that moment on, I was hooked. It took some time to adjust, but the strength in my feet and legs, the improved balance and the joy I got from running barefoot(esq) opened my eyes to the importance of us connecting with the earth without shoes.
Let me clarify. I do wear shoes when I have to. In such times, I try to wear minimalist shoes as often as possible. I had been wearing the 5 fingers for about 10 years until sustaining two baby-toe injuries during trail runs. Now I have resigned to wearing minimalist shoes that protect my baby toes from roots and rocks. When I can, though, I love being barefoot, especially out in the woods, grass, on the beach or any other ‘earthy’ spot.
Our feet have many pressure points that connect to just about every other part of our body. When you run or walk barefoot, these pressure points are triggered and the ‘happy’ endorphins start running through your body. It’s virtually impossible to get the same effect with shoes. Additionally, when our feet are connected directly to the grass, dirt, or sand, they are able to absorb the minerals and energy from the earth to make dramatic improvements in our bodies. Don’t believe me….check out this article on “Earthing” from the Journal of Environmental Public Health (not some new-age magazine). This article looks at various impacts of “earthing” (or grounding)—including better sleep, reduced pain and improved immune-response. Honestly, this is something I discovered on my own and only recently heard of the term “earthing,” which backs up what I intuitively have sensed for years.
If going barefoot isn’t your ‘thing’ (or at least not yet), don’t fret. You don’t have to be barefoot to reap the benefits of connecting with nature, nor do you have to do a 7- mile backcountry hike. There are many ways, big and small, that you can connect with nature.
One is a growing trend that started in Japan in the 1980’s. It is a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. There are now sites all over the world one can pay to go for guided ‘forest bathing’, but honestly it’s something you can do for free on your own. Find a forest or quiet, secluded place in nature and just be. Turn off your phone. Bring nothing to distract you and take in the surroundings. Stop to smell the flowers, trees, and fresh air. Feel the sun beating on your face (& if you do it in the north during winter, feel that cold, fresh air cleanse your lungs!). Touch trees, play in the dirt, make ripples in the water, feel the textures of the leaves, flowers, rocks and tree bark. Use all of your senses to take in your surroundings. You can even hug trees….it is as therapeutic as ‘earthing’ (yes, there is research on this too!)
If you are unable to get to a forest, or some type of open space, find a local park or even a spot in your yard. I know this may be difficult in certain communities, but with the rise in community gardens and push for green spaces in urban centers, accessibility is improving. If these options are not possible, just get outside. Look at the sky, try to spot nature of any type - be it an insect, bird, squirrel, dog, leaf, flower, tree, rock or pond - and reflect on it. If it’s safe to do so, touch it. Notice how a sense of peace starts to come over you. You may feel your breathing slow down and some of the frustration you have felt start to calm.
If it has been some time since you’ve connected with nature and taken time to slow down, this may be the first time you notice how much stress you have held onto and how shallow your breathing is. Close your eyes and take in all of this - the nature and your body’s response to it. Don’t judge your feelings, just notice them and let the healing power of nature begin to do its work. The more you are able to connect, the more you will notice the healing benefits nature has.
You don’t have to experience nature alone to get these benefits. Just being outside in and of itself is therapeutic. Find some friends for a pick up game of soccer or basketball. Fly a kite in the park or at the beach. Plant a garden. Find a local pond and go fishing. If you don’t have a fishing pole, check in your local library… I know a few of them that check out fishing poles to those who have library cards! Visit a 'u-pick' farm and pick your own fresh produce. Find some rocks and notice their color variations, how smooth or rough they are, and how they feel in your hands. Take a walk, take a hike…whatever it is, just get outside!
As we continue to seek out ways to improve our immune systems, heal our bodies and restore our communities, we should be including nature in our tool kit of resources. Nature can be found everywhere and does not discriminate. It can be accessed free in many places and its benefits are priceless. And, who knows, maybe you can make a new friend or two and be given a trail name like I was…“Pinkie”!