Are you careful about selecting well-fitting children’s shoes to keep feet healthy? That’s good, but there’s something even better. A new study shows that going barefoot has more benefits than previously suspected.

In Japan, a team of Austrian researchers were told, there are pre-schools with a “barefoot policy,” where children go barefoot all day. They saw this as a unique opportunity to compare the feet of children who wear shoes and those who go barefoot within a population group. The marker used was the angle of the big toe, which is considered a reliable indicator of podiatric damage: The shorter the shoe, the larger the angle of the big toe. The researchers assumed that kids who wear properly fitting shoes would have similarly healthy big toe angles to the children who went barefoot. But the results proved them wrong: The children who habitually went barefoot had significantly fewer crooked big toes (hallux valgus) than the children who wore shoes – even when the shoes fit perfectly. Project lead Wieland Kinz says, “Shoes can damage feet, going barefoot prevents this damage. And it also makes the feet more resilient to negative influences.”

Finding children’s shoes that fit properly is not easy for parents: Children up to the age of 10 cannot feel whether the shoes fit well or are much too short in length. And the shoe sizes on the label are usually wrong. This was also the case in Japan: only 3.5% of the shoes tested had the correct inside length. It also showed that girls in Japan are more likely to be wearing poorly fitting shoes than boys: They have less extra space in their shoes and were found to be wearing too-short shoes significantly more often than boys.

Kinz recommends:

1. Go barefoot as often as possible (and not just kids, either!).

2. Wear socks and shoes that fit the shape of the foot and don’t squeeze or constrict the toes.

3. Make sure that shoes have at least 12 mm extra space in the toe.

Read more about this study in the journal Footwear Science: