The footwear habits of children can have a significant impact on their athleticism.
Those were the findings of a recent study by Stellenbosch University in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The researchers studied 385 “habitual barefoot” children and 425 children who almost always wore shoes. The former were from schools in the Western Cape province of South Africa while the latter were from schools in northern Germany. All participants were between the ages of 6 and 18.
“Whereas South African children are generally used to walking barefoot during the day‚ almost all German children wear shoes during school time and for most of recreational activities‚” Professor Ranel Venter from the department of sport science in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University told the Sunday Star-Times.
All subjects participated in at least two hours of physical activity per week and were free of any conditions that may have impaired their motor performance. The children were put through a variety of tasks at the location of their regular physical education classes, including walking backwards over balance beams of varying width, a 20-meter flying sprint and a long jump. Both groups performed the tests both barefooted and while wearing shoes. From Science Daily:
The habitually barefoot participants scored significantly higher in the balance and jumping tests compared to the habitually shod participants. This difference was observed in both test conditions (barefoot and shod) and across all age groups (6-10, 11-14 and 15-18 years), but particularly evident in 6- to 10-year-old children. The habitually barefoot children also performed better when barefoot than when shod.
However, the shoe-wearing participants, particularly those in the 11-14 age group, performed better in the sprint test. Researchers theorized this difference could’ve been due to the fact the testing surfaces were different between the two groups.
“In South Africa, the sprint test took place outdoors—with different weather conditions and surfaces. In contrast, the German children took the sprint test indoors, mostly in a sports hall with a sprung floor,” Professor Astrid Zech from the University of Jena, Germany, told Science Daily. “The type of shoe may also have influenced the results. South African students run in school shoes, while German students use sneakers or athletic shoes in their physical education classes. So while our results suggest that growing up shod may be beneficial for fast sprinting, we need to investigate this further.”
Researchers believe that the barefoot children’s superior balance and jumping ability may stem from the fact that their feet had higher arches than children who rarely spent time barefooted.
“The results emphasize the importance of footwear habits for the development of motor skills during childhood and adolescence. This indicates that regular physical activities without footwear may be beneficial for the development of jumping and balance skills, especially in the age of 6-10 years,” the researchers concluded. The full study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics, can be viewed here.
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