Kids these days! I sound like my grandparents saying that, but the difference is while they were perhaps referring to some punk kid tailgating them on their way home from their weekly Bingo game, I’m referring to the kids walking around in pumped-up-kicks whose health and fitness levels fall very short of achieving any Presidential Fitness Award.

Raising healthy kids starts with the feet, and that means the bare feet. It's what our parents and grandparents did as kids. It's what Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer did too, and they had some pretty cool adventures. Now kids would rather stay indoors, texting and friending on Facebook instead of playing with friends outside. With little exercise to speak of, and processed junk food the norm in many households and school cafeterias, it's no wonder that most countries have a runaway problem with childhood obesity – approximately one-third of American kids are either overweight or obese. Raising a healthy and fit kid isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s well worth your time, and I’m going to suggest you proceed from the ground up.

Kids, from their elementary school days up through high school, appear to be much less active and less healthy than their parents when they were at that age. Fast food often occupies school lunches, unless they’re eating something processed either from home or the vending machine. Physical education classes have slowly been eliminated, and those that remain are either focused on health and sexual education or the gym class has adopted less intense exercise routines, such as the parachute and childhood interaction - skills that do benefit all kids - but ultimately they are not running, jumping, climbing, and playing like they could be. They often get home from school exhausted as many have been gone for 8-12 hours, much like they’re already in a full-time job. They once again eat a nutritionally poor after-school snack and then veg-out in front of the TV or computer. More kids are becoming overweight and obese and they live much of their childhood lives indoors, many never experiencing daily, or even weekly, outdoor activities.

The health of the child starts long before they’re born, and even before conception as much of the health of that child is dependent on the mom’s health. Her diet, lifestyle, hormonal influence, and emotional well-being will all affect how healthy her baby is. Once the baby is born, his or her health is still dependant on the mom for some time, as hopefully breast milk is the only thing on the menu. Eventually, right around a year, give or take, that child is going to start walking, and essentially their developing fitness becomes a part of life.

As soon as that infant starts to cruise and eventually walk the feet become perhaps the most important non-organ part of the body. What the parent does now can help or hinder their child’s development. Will they put their child in shoes like so many pediatricians recommend? Or will they keep their child barefoot or in sock-like shoes? Unfortunately parents are told shoes give the toddler support “because they need it.” Hopefully the parents have educated themselves and know that their child’s feet are already made perfectly and going barefoot as much as possible, (or in moccasin-like shoes if protection is needed outside), is the best way to not only help their child’s structural development, but also their neurological development.

Each foot is home to approximately 7,000 nerve endings and the information they receive and pass on to the rest of the body is anything less than extraordinary. When that child’s foot feels the ground, the thousands of touch receptors in the nerve endings feed back to the rest of the entire nervous system. As the nervous system runs the entire body, any foot impairment, dysfunction, imbalance, or improper footwear can not only hinder them directly, (such as lower leg function and balance), but their entire health.

As a child grows their foot gradually replaces the cartilage with bone. Improper footwear worn by kids during this stage means that the bones do not develop correctly and a lifetime of foot problems can result. As kids gain weight and eventually enter puberty their risk of foot ailments seems to drastically increase and improper shoes are perhaps part of the blame. Unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity most likely play a part too.

Many are beginning to realize that minimalist shoes are important for healthy and fit kids. However, the medical establishment tends to be conservative on the issue and raise doubts with parents who may question whether this minimalist thing is just a recent, perhaps even harmful, fad. David Davidson, D.P.M., president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (AAPSM), stated, "Kids should not be running in 'minimalist footwear' at all and, as in other shoes, should be wearing brand name running shoes with good motion control, cushioning, etc." However, there is no research to back up this position. Is it possible that overbuilt shoes contradict the medical mandate to "first, do no harm?"

Once your child is walking and standing correctly, (remember parents, you don't have to work to get a toddler or young child to move - it comes natural), either because they are barefoot or in a very minimalist type shoe, it’s time to get them back into activity if they aren’t already involved. Outside activities are best, if that’s possible, so the child can interact with nature and develop with all the sensory and motor information received. If you want to encourage your child to be more active, make it fun. My kids like obstacle courses, running and climbing games, and turning yard work into a game. Check out my 2-year old Paxton carrying a rock across the yard in his Vivo Barefoot shoes. He’s barefoot most of the time, but these new shoes are just so cool he wants to wear them all the time.

Your barefoot-exercising kid now is ready for their final step towards health and fitness perfection with a change from their processed, sugary diet to one rich in whole foods, clean water, and items that don’t come in a box, can, or bag. Start weaning your child off juice and soda and onto just water and perhaps some organic whole milk. Hopefully your infant or toddler never became accustomed to juice or soda but if they did, it's not too late to make healthier choices. Get your child eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and high protein foods (eggs & meats) throughout the day and limit or eliminate white flours and sugars.

The Three Keys To A Healthy, Active, Barefoot Child:

  1. Encourage kids to go barefoot whenever possible whether they are inside or outside – as long as the terrain is safe. If the terrain warrants shoes, have your child wear minimalist shoes during those times. No need for “running shoes.” Running shoes are often miniature versions of over-supported, built-up adult shoes that are terrible for developing feet. The shoes should have a low heel height, low to the ground, very little cushioning, flexible throughout the shoe, plenty of room in the toe box (where a child’s foot is widest), and very light.
  2. Your active child should participate in a wide variety of physical activities and games that build strength, endurance, and overall fitness.
  3. Educate your child on eating healthy foods as early in their life as possible. Lead by example – healthy food choices should be a family affair.