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Working out without shoes

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Enfield, New Hampshire - July 22, 2010

KDR Fitness in Enfield, N.H., is like most gyms with a variety of free weights and open workout space. But what's unique about this fitness center is what you do not see: the sneakers.

"When I came I thought we were going to have to wear sneakers, and when he said take them off I said yes... This is perfect," said Ellen Oberkotter, who uses the gym.

The gym's owner, Ben Dearman, decided about a year ago to do away with workout shoes, opting instead for his clients to go barefoot.

"We don't force people to go barefoot but it is something that we do try to encourage people to do," he said.

It's a fitness regimen that utilizes outside space in the summer to bring out the "natural athlete" in all of us.

"We are born barefoot. If we were meant to wear shoes on our feet then we would be born with shoes on," Dearman said.

Dearman says that sneakers with their added cushion on the heel can actually be bad for building muscle, because he says shoes counteract the foot's natural ability to absorb pressure.

"And then you will see compensation patterns and injuries develop. It almost becomes a cascading event," Dearman said.

And chiropractor and KDR regular Court Vreeland, a chiropractor, agrees.

"It's almost like putting your foot in a cast. That creates weak muscles and that works its way to all the kinematic chain from the knees to the hips to the back and that's where your problem begins," Vreeland said.

Vreeland himself has very high arched soles which he says are actually a good thing when it comes to shoeless strength training.

"The last thing someone with high arches needs is more arch support and almost all shoes are designed with entirely too much arch support," he said.

Others in sports medicine say going shoeless is not always the best choice.

"I think it depends on who you are," said Kristine Karlson, an orthopedist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a former team doctor for the 2008 U.S. Olympic triathlon and rowing teams.

Karlson says there's research both supporting and opposing exercising barefoot. She says shoes are important for protection, especially for joggers.

"This is not necessarily a great idea for your average three-miles-a-couple-days-a-week kind of runner because they are never going to condition their feet enough," she said.

But those getting in shape at KDR are embracing the barefoot routine-- no matter what age.

"I'm getting very used to it," said Judy McKeown, 67. "It feels very comfortable, very natural and I think that's... I like to walk on sand and grass barefoot so there is no reason not to learn how to do it in here."

"I actually live no shoes," Oberkotter said. "This is perfect for me. I wear shoes if I have to."

And this small gym is not one of those places.

Doctors and fitness experts say some people should not go barefoot, so it's important to consult your doctor to see if this type of training is right for you.

Adam Sullivan - WCAX News

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