By Dorene Internicola
NEW YORK (Reuters) - With barefoot running all the rage, the unshod workout is gaining ground across the exercise spectrum.
Fitness experts from aerobics instructors to modern dancers are extolling the virtues of feeling the ground beneath their feet.
Connecticut-based fitness instructor Ellen Barrett teaches a mixture of Pilates, yoga and dance and conducts all her low-impact classes barefoot.
"I've been teaching barefoot forever. Shoes give you a false sense of a platform. You don't connect to ground," explained Barrett, creator of the DVDs "Grace and Gusto" and "Power Fusion."
"So goes the foot, so goes the body. If your foot is balanced and strong the rest of the body is too," said Barrett. "That connectedness between foot and core and balance, that core connection, that's ultimately what balance is."
A firm believer that bare feet are happy feet, Barrett recalled that when her perpetually work-booted father finally removed his shoes, "his feet looked immature, not like the rest of his body."
She believes shoe-encased feet need to ease out gradually.
For starters she suggests going barefoot around the house or performing the elementary exercise of pointing and flexing the bare foot 10 times.
Shoeless for 12 years, Colorado-based barefoot fitness instructor Stacey Lei Krauss said she has taught thousands to exercise unshod.
"Being barefoot is better than being in a cast, which is what your shoe is," said Krauss. "If you're in a cast your muscles will atrophy and your joints will be stiff."
Krauss' latest DVD, "WillPower and Grace," is a sweaty cardiovascular workout that includes lunges, squats, jumps and push-ups, all done barefoot.
"We begin class with a warm up. Just being barefoot is going to demand a little more of your feet," she said. "And you need to be taught how to land: without a sound and engaging the core."
Eighty-four-year-old fitness instructor Ann Smith exercises in bare feet and always has.
"I didn't know it was a trend," Smith said. "I was trained in modern and interpretive dance, which has always been barefoot."
Smith, whose DVDs include "Stretching for Seniors" and "Moving to Mozart," said being barefoot makes contact with the floor safer, easier and more logical.
"There's more power, more expression," she said. "As I tell my seniors, 'If you're meeting someone, you take off your gloves to shake their hand.'"
Smith, who is based in Alexandria, Virginia, was inducted into barefoot exercise by her mother, an interpretive dancer of the Isadora Duncan period.
"My routines are based on classic ballet and modern dance: slow continuous stretching of the body inside and out," she said.
Smith said barefoot exercises should be done on a wooden floor. Tile and cement are too hard on the back.
"If you want to look like an athlete, go to the gym and work out on machines. If you want to look like a dancer, take some dance classes," said Smith. "I have my own hips, my own knees and I'm not on any medication. Trust your body. It will tell you."
Barrett believes the body is telling a lot of fitness lovers to give barefoot a try.
"I think it's going to continue," she said. "We have an epidemic of knee and hip problems. The last resort is to go naked and see what Mother Nature can do."