How to Find the Best Minimalist Shoes (for Adults and Kids)

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How to Find the Best Minimalist Shoes for Adults and Kids
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I’ve been all about the barefoot shoes (or just being barefoot) for years. But there are some times and some places where barefoot shoes just won’t cut it. Thankfully, there are now many wonderful options for minimalist shoes that look like “regular shoes.” These shoes don’t offer quite as much foot freedom as true barefoot shoes do, but they can be socially acceptable in almost any instance while still supporting natural foot movement.

The Problem With (Most) Shoes

Turns out that just like many other aspects of life that we take for granted (like mobile phones, fast food, and bottled water), our shoes can often do more harm than good.

There are entire books that talk about the problems associated with long-term use of positive heel and overly supportive shoes. As we spend (or should spend) at least half of our day on our feet, our footwear options can affect us more than we realize!

Why Are We All Wearing Heels?

Walk into any popular shoe store. Over 90% of the shoes have heels!

Don’t believe me?

It’s easy to think that only women’s high heeled shoes are “heels,” but almost all shoes are these days! A shoe with a heel is technically when the heel is higher than the toe of the shoe. Even “flats” and athletic shoes often have 1/4 to 1/2 inch heels!

Learn more about Natural Remedies for Bunions in this post.

All About the Angles… of the Ankles

Let’s flash back to geometry for just a minute. Bad memories? No worries, we won’t stay there long…

First, for the purpose of this illustration, I’m assuming that people generally want to stand up straight. If you prefer to walk with your body at a 45 degree forward angle this doesn’t apply to you.

Pretend a person is standing with flat feet on the ground. The ankle joint is at a 90 degree angle. Now imagine that this person is temporarily frozen so no joints can move. Now imagine we put heels on that person (or even just put a wedge under that person’s foot). Since the ankle can’t bend, what happens to the rest of the person?

Ten points if you said his or her body leans forward!

And the higher the wedge/heel added, the more forward the person leans. But since we don’t like to (and can’t) walk around like that, what does a person do? Unfreeze the person and he or she adjusts and stands up straight. But not without changing angles of the ankle and thus the pressure on the knees, hips, and even pelvic floor.

And the smaller the person, the bigger of a problem this is!

As movement specialist and biomechanist Katy Bowman explains (read her whole post about it here):

The shorter the foot wearing a heeled shoe, the greater the angle upon which the foot is set. When it comes to putting kids in heeled shoes, it bears emphasizing:

  • The higher the heel, the more forward the body is projected
  • The shorter the foot, the more forward the body is projected
  • The taller the body, the more forward the body is projected

Kids are short, but they also have short feet, which is why it drives me crazy to see a child’s shoe with a heel the same height as their parents’. The short foot of a child “magnifies” a heel’s effect—even a heel of seemingly inconsequential height. Which means that… the angle between the standing surface and the foot would be much greater in the child than in the adult.

Walking on Sunshine (or Padding)

Another problem with a lot of non-minimalist shoes is the overage of cushioning. In many shoes, we don’t feel the ground at all! Ever stepped on a rock in your running shoes? Did you feel it through your shoe?

Supportive and cushioned shoes encourage the wearer to land on the heel of the foot when walking or running, since the shoe absorbs the impact. This changes the natural step and posture (watch babies who have just learned how to walk to see the difference!) and creates a different walking pattern.

Harvard scientist Dr. Daniel Lieberman did a study that explains why:

Lieberman and colleagues analyzed the running styles, or gaits, of five groups of people — U.S. adult athletes who had always worn shoes, Kenyan adult runners who grew up barefoot but now wear cushioned running shoes, U.S. adult runners who grew up wearing shoes but now run barefoot or with minimal footwear, Kenyan adolescents who have never worn shoes, and Kenyan adolescents who have worn shoes for most of their lives.

And they say they found a striking (pun intended) pattern:

Most shoed runners, which would encompass 75% or more of Americans, strike their heels when they run, experiencing a large and sudden collision force an average of 960 times for every mile they run, “making runners prone to repetitive stress injuries.”

The Foot Isn’t a Vacuum

As nothing in the body exists in isolation, altering a person’s walking pattern will have an impact on joints above the foot (mainly knee and hip) as well.

Even things like arch supports, which seem like a good idea, are controversial in the foot world. Some experts recommend them routinely. Others claim they can actually cause the problem they are meant to fix by over-supporting the arch and causing the muscles in the foot to get weaker from lack of use.

The Benefits of Wearing Minimal Shoes

Studies (like this one) have compared barefoot/minimalist running to running in modern shoes and have found:

  • Going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes that allow natural movement strengthen the muscles of the feet and legs by requiring balance and stabilizing movement. This also may reduce injury risk if done regularly and carefully.
  • Some evidence shows that many ankle and knee problems may be linked to the artificial way of walking created by overly-supportive shoes. Simply changing to more natural footwear options can help alleviate these problems.
  • Less supportive shoes may help strengthen the arches by requiring the muscles of the foot to hold up the arch instead of providing support that causes the muscles to atrophy.
  • Walking barefoot (or in barefoot shoes) can lead to a more natural gait. Barefoot walkers often mid-foot strike rather than strike with the heel (often seen with cushioned shoes).
  • Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen. Some experts say this may reduce injuries, such as calf pulls or Achilles tendinitis caused by short, tight tissues.

So, if our feet aren’t meant to be confined to cushy rubber soles all day but social norms frown on walking barefoot in most places, what are the alternatives?

Thanks to several innovative companies, we don’t have to actually be barefoot to get the benefits…

What Are Minimalist Shoes?

This post details the benefits of being barefoot (or as close as possible), along with barefoot style shoes examples. In recent years, many minimalist shoes have emerged as great alternatives. These aren’t quite as good as barefoot shoes, but they are close. And they are typically much more socially acceptable! A shoe qualifies as a minimalist shoe if it:

  1. Is Zero-Drop – This means that the heel and the rest of the shoe are the same height. This one requirement makes minimalist shoes surprisingly hard to find!
  2. Bends Easily– The foot is designed to bend when we walk, not just our ankles. Stiff shoes don’t allow this natural movement of the foot.
  3. Doesn’t Squish Toes– When we walk barefoot, our toes spread out to improve balance and stability. Shoes that squish the toes restrict this natural movement. Minimalist shoes have what is called a wide toe box to allow toes to move, even in the shoe.
  4. Stays on the Foot– It isn’t natural to have to hold a shoe on the foot with our muscles while we walk. As much as I love regular flip flops, they aren’t minimal shoes! It takes some foot gymnastics to hold them on the feet while simultaneously trying to flex the foot while walking. A good minimalist shoe should attach to the foot without slipping or requiring the foot to hold it. (Thankfully, many flip flops have backs that accomplish this!)

Best Minimalist Shoes for All Ages

While in an ideal world, we would all have the chance to walk around barefoot in perfectly soft green grass every day, this certainly isn’t always the case (though if you have the option to, go for it!).

For those of us used to wearing cushioned, protective and heeled shoes, switching to barefoot and barefoot alternatives requires a careful adjustment period to make sure that the muscles of the feet and legs have time to adjust. This book explains how to do it safely.

Thankfully, there are some great barefoot and minimalist shoe options available. Anya has some really helpful reviews you can check out here for lots of different barefoot and minimalist shoes for kids.  The following are the ones our family wears (for sandals and barefoot shoes see this post).

Vivo Barefoot Shoes

This company makes a wide variety of minimalist shoe options for all ages. All of their shoes satisfy the criteria above. They carry the only great option for men’s dress shoes I’ve seen. I also love their kids dress shoes, sneakers, and women’s flats. For littles, their Ultra kids’ shoes are great.

Pros: Many great options for dress shoes, athletic shoes, and casual shoes.

Cons: Pricier than traditional shoes.

Where to get: I find the best prices on their website here.

Sizes & Styles Available: All sizes from toddler to adult. All styles from dress shoe to sandal to athletic shoes.

Xero Shoes

This company also makes minimalist footwear that meets the criteria above. I really only like their Teva-style sandals, but they have some sneakers as well.

Pros: Great sandals

Cons: Not a lot of styles. Don’t love their sneakers.

Where to get: I always order styles with free returns from here so I can try them on.

Sizes and Styles Available: Adult sizes only. Sandals and sneakers.

Water Shoes

These are specifically recommended by Katy Bowman as a really budget-friendly minimalist option. They are really inexpensive (around $10) and great for growing feet. We often get these during the summer, especially for younger kids who outgrow shoes quickly. Kids love these colorful water shoes and there are some really cute adult ones as well.

Pros: Really inexpensive, fun patterns for kids, versatile.

Cons: Not as durable as some other options and not very trendy.


Though not specifically designed as a minimalist shoe, TOMS classic shoes are actually a decent option for those wanting a “normal” looking shoe that doesn’t offer too much cushion or have a positive heel. They are also incredibly comfortable, and apparently pretty popular. I like that they also donate shoes to those in need around the world. TOMS certainly aren’t the best option, but they offer most of the benefits without being too weird.

Pros: No positive heel. Minimal arch support. Protect the feet. Lots of options.

Cons: Not for working out. Slightly constrict toes. Do have some cushioning and won’t necessarily help correct a heel strike.

Sizes and Styles Available: Stick with the classic flats and avoid any of the newer styles with a raised heel. Available in adult and kid sizes.

Sanuk Yoga Slings

These aren’t the best option but they are really comfortable and seem to be popular. They have more cushioning than some of the other options, but hold the foot and have a flat sole.

Pros: Very comfortable

Cons: Lots of cushioning

Minimalist Shoes: Bottom Line

Thanks to researchers like Katy Bowman and Dr. Lieberman at Harvard, we are starting to understand how modern footwear is negatively affecting how we move. As more companies create minimalist shoe options, it will get easier to find alternatives to traditional heeled shoes. When possible our family chooses minimalist alternatives and also makes sure to spend time barefoot!

Have you tried any of these shoes? What are your favorite shoes and why? Haven’t yet, but will? Share below!

Minimalist shoes allow modern comfort without sacrificing the natural movement of the foot. Learn what makes minimalist shoes different and where to find them.
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


185 responses to “How to Find the Best Minimalist Shoes (for Adults and Kids)”

  1. Britta Kreps Avatar
    Britta Kreps

    I’m curious about the brand of shoes in the picture at the bottom of the post? They are pink with gray laces.

  2. Heather Rocha Avatar
    Heather Rocha

    Soft Star Shoes makes their shoes from responsibly sourced leather in Corvallis, Oregon. My family and I have been to their shop and enjoyed watching them make the shoes. (The shop is open behind the sales counter and you can see the workshop). I LOVE their shoes for my kids, they have several options including sandals, easy slip on shoes, and boots and some are customizable with choices of leather colors and sole options. I’ve gotten these shoes for my kids (boy 8, girl 2) since they could walk, and have gotten the Laguna sandals, Classic style, and the Rambler style and love them all. I just ordered next size up for both kids from their clearance stock.

    I and also have a pair of Soft Stars for myself and while I usually go to Vivobarefoot for style and options, I see Soft Star has added new styles since I last purchased.

    I first got into barefoot shoes through a recommendation from a podiatrist here in Portland who specifically recommended Soft Star Shoes. I was in the Army at the time, and had shin splints for 11 years that resolved within a month of switching to a pair of Soft Star’s Dash RunAmoc’s customized with a leather sole for grounding benefits. They were expensive, but made it feel good to run again and lasted for years. The RunAmocs are great for walking around in or business casual too. I wore them while pregnant.

    You can also choose from vegetable tanned leathers in the custom options too. I also appreciate that they don’t have any branding on them. They are roomy shoes and even the regular width has wider toe boxes than usual plus the leather molds to the foot. I recommend printing off their size charts to measure the foot for sizing.

  3. Barbara Avatar

    What are the pink shoes in the picture with the teal closure???? I am searching for croc-like barefoot shoes for my kids and those look promising. Thank you!!!

  4. Molly thompson Avatar
    Molly thompson

    Any winter boot suggestions for women?

    I had pubic symposis with my last pregnancy and are ttc, but nervous about walking with heels all winter!

  5. Joule Tallman Avatar
    Joule Tallman

    I’m not sure when your blog was written, but it may be time for an update – Xero has been expanding their offerings and now also have a kids model. I am quite fond of my new Mikas: lined, natural fibre uppers, zero drop BOOTS. Yes please. They also now offer a leather dress style which is quite nice looking but I haven’t tried it on. ?? Good post!

  6. Alana Avatar

    I love the idea of these shoes, but we live in the Pacific Northwest. I seem unable to find any waterproof options. Cloth shoes flat on the soaking wet ground 10 months out of the year seems to only mean soggy wet cold feet. How does one do minimalist kids footwear in the winter and the wet?

  7. Samantha Garofalo Avatar
    Samantha Garofalo

    Have you heard of Glerups? Natural slipper shoes made from felted Gotland Sheep. A Canadian family started this company, and brought their traditions over from Denmark. Seems like a very natural and comfortable wear. I’m curious to hear your review of these shoes/slippers.

  8. Jade Avatar

    What are your thoughts about running with these shoes on pavement? Too much impact or okay?

    1. Laura Avatar

      Yes I’d love to hear her thoughts on this. I’ve been wearing xero shoes for about 2 years but when I go for long walks (not a runner) in our neighborhood or on trails I have to walk in the grass as I find the impact too hard on pavement. Perhaps I need to correct a “heel strike” but we don’t have soft trails around us so instead I’m stuck walking in grass and trying to avoid dog __ ! 🙂

  9. Boulder Avatar

    I highly recommend Lems!!!
    They are just the best and I have a few pairs!!!

  10. Karina Avatar

    In my experience, the very best winter boots, though not advertised as minimalist, are Manitobah Mukluk ~ flexible Vibram sole, zero drop, no extra support, toe box is reasonably roomy. They are waterproof, extremely warm and cozy, and durable. My seven year old daughter is in love with hers. They’re expensive, but will last to be handed down to other kiddos or worn for multiple seasons. We’ve tried vivobarefoot and softstar boots too. While I adore those brands for all seasons other than winter, the styles we tried just weren’t warm enough for the really frigid winters of the Northeast.

    For adult sizes only, Feelmax Kuuva and Vibram Furoshiki have also been pretty good in the cold.

  11. Robert Frederick Avatar
    Robert Frederick

    I’d like to add Splay in the category for kids shoes. Velcro, canvas, 4mm between foot and floor.

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