Barefoot running has lodged itself squarely into mainstream consciousness in recent years: Exercisers clad in minimal “toe glove” sneakers are everywhere, creating a paradigm shift in conventional thought about footwear. Fitness experts are following along, campaigning that our bodies were designed to run without the excessive cushioning of traditional running shoes. The idea is that feet need to feel the road beneath them to activate the many little muscles and nerves that stimulate proper form and alignment and ultimately prevent injury.
The next logical step in this philosophical shift is barefoot cross training. At Revolution In Motion, Long Island’s first barefoot training gym, founder Edythe Heus believes cross-training sans sneakers is the ideal way to address balance issues, muscle weaknesses and lingering sports injuries. She also claims it tunes up nervous systems underworked in part because of the constant cushioning of one of the most important sensory input areas of the body: Feet.
“The bottoms of our feet have a ton of nerve receptors that tell us where we are in space, nerves that give our brain information about how our bodies are moving,” Edythe said. Heavy sneakers muffle that input, leading to muscle imbalances and even injury during sport and play.
RevMo, as the gym is called, is focused on using the novel, the unstable, the unsteady and the unfamiliar to challenge clients’ muscles and nervous systems for optimum fitness. The two rooms in the second-story Port Washington studio have some odd-looking equipment along with the standard mats and exercise balls. In either individual personal training sessions or small group classes, RevMo’s trainers utilize methods ranging from having clients stand on loose PVC pipes to jumping on a Bosu ball with one foot. The unstable surface upsets any ingrained, automatic body and brain responses, which helps encourage a rejuvenation of the body-mind connection.
Sometimes muscles will shake uncontrollably, but not with fatigue. This is a neural reaction and Edythe and the trainers get happy when they see it.
“It means the nerves are waking up, that connection is coming alive again.” In addition to jangling the nerves, exercises are often done on one foot at a time to try to identify and correct imbalances in the body. This prevents bigger, dominant muscles from taking over and masking smaller weaknesses in connective and supportive muscles.
When personal training clients first show up at RevMo, the trainers evaluate their walk, looking at posture, form and any imbalances to create a targeted plan for an individual’s particular training needs. And by retraining the brain, the barefoot exercisers find they can come back from injury, and even surgery, quicker than with traditional gym moves.
Edythe, whose background is as a chiropractor and kinesiologist (trained in the study of human movement) said that she asks new clients to commit to a minimum of three sessions. “Three seems to be a magic number. Something starts to click in the brain after that.”
A key word that kept getting tossed around during the workout sessions was proprioception, which is the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position without actually seeing where they are. “We have tricks to make you not look at your feet,” Edith said as trainers shouted and made noises to distract clients jumping on a Bosu ball from looking down to see where they were stepping. The point was to feel it, to use body awareness and those countless receptors on the soles of feet. But old habits die hard. The best way to train it, according to Edythe, is by performing novel movements in bare feet, which helps “receive better information about where you are in space, giving you better coordination and balance and improving reaction time.”
Although many of the exercises looked fun—a sliding mat, a tight rope, a post with measurements to help gauge jumping height—a full class of them ends up being a challenging full-body workout. Athletes, weekend warriors, new moms, the chronically injured or plateaued exerciser—or anyone whose nervous system might need a tune-up—can benefit from being encouraged to pay closer attention to their bodies, from the ground up.