"If we take off our shoes and go for a run, we can finish smarter than when we started."
In the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of North Florida have demonstrated that running barefoot is better for an individual’s cognitive performance than running with shoes.
Working memory enables us to recall and process information, and it’s used throughout our lifespan. The researchers suggest that by improving it, we may also see improvements in key areas of our lives, from school to work to retirement.
"Working memory is increasingly recognized as a crucial cognitive skill, and these findings are great news for people looking for a fun way to boost their working memory," said Tracy Alloway, associate professor from the Department of Psychology at UNF, in a press release.
Alloway was part of a team of UNF researchers who recruited 72 study participants between the ages of 18 and 44, and all volunteers ran barefoot in the first part of the experiment and wore shoes in the second. They were instructed to run at a comfortable, self-selected pace for about 16 minutes, and working memory was measured before and after running.
The results, which appear in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, reveal that the barefoot-running condition led to a significant boost in working memory — approximately 16 percent. Those running with shoes, on the other hand, showed no significant increase in working memory.
Further, the researchers measured the speed and heart rate of the participants, but neither was found to have any impact on working memory performance.
"The little things often have the greatest impact. This research shows us that we can realize our cognitive potential and enjoy ourselves at the same time," said lead researcher Ross Alloway, psychology professor at UNF, in the release. "If we take off our shoes and go for a run, we can finish smarter than when we started."
Barefoot runners have to pay careful attention to avoid stepping on potentially harmful objects on the ground by using precise foot placement. In the study, the participants were required to step on certain flat objects to simulate running barefoot in an outdoors context. This adds an extra layer of attention to the task, unlike mindlessly running with protective shoes on.
The researchers say it’s possible that the barefoot running condition stimulates a more intensive use of working memory because of the extra tactile demands, which could potentially explain the working memory gains.