By Katy Santiago Bowman
Since your very first step, you have been moving around your life on your own two feet. Remarkable as that is, it’s even more amazing how little most of us know about how feet work, and how they affect the rest of the body. When your feet are not working to their full potential, the effects can be felt throughout the body. While poor foot mechanics can lead to many issues that manifest throughout the skeleton, you don’t have to head north of the ankles to start the list. Bunions, plantar fasciitis and hammertoes can all be created or affected by weak muscles inside the foot called the intrinsic muscles. Shoe choices, gait habits and posture all contribute to weakening of these muscles, which in turn creates tension on ligaments, tendons and fascia — all common sources of foot pain.
Here are four simple things you can do improve your foot mechanics immediately:
Because every step you take is a result of how you push off of your feet, foot position is a critical factor in how your knees and hips deal with force. Most of us can classify ourselves as “pigeon-toed” or “duck-footed,” common slang for the positioning of the toes pointed toward each other, or away from each other. Very few of us walk with the bones of our feet pointed directly in front of us, rendering the “cables and pulleys” of our muscle and ligament systems largely unable to do the work they are designed to do.
The simplest way to align your feet objectively is to find a straight-edge, such as a tile floor in your home or a yoga mat. Line up the outside edge of the foot so that it matches the straight line. Now your foot is straight. It is common for this to feel very abnormal, even pigeon-toed! Now adjust your foot into this position every time you can remember.
Your human machine was not designed to wear shoes. Did you know that one quarter of the bones in your body are from your ankle down? The same is true for the one quarter of your muscles. What does all this mean? It means that your feet are designed to be very dexterous. They have the potential to be just as dexterous as your hands, as a matter of fact, but very rarely do we challenge ourselves to utilize this potential. Instead, we keep them bound up in shoes, and put the ankle in charge of all the refined hinging and balancing movements that the foot is designed to do. Imagine how ineffectual you would become by wearing your shoes on your hands when doing your daily chores! We habitually handicap our feet in exactly this same way, every day.
When you take your shoes off and begin reactivating the muscles of your feet, you also reactivate large segments of your brain. As with your muscles, your brain and nervous system need to be used or the unused cells gradually die off.
Incorporate barefoot time into your schedule. Consider making your home a shoe-free zone, or at least doing some yoga poses that press the soles of your feet to the ground. Local school sports fields are often pet- and debris-free, and can provide good places to do some barefoot walking.
If you’re not yet convinced to donate all your shoes to your dog as chew toys, then you should know that all shoes are not created equal. Your body has to compensate for different shoes in different ways.
One truth is simple: avoid high heels at all costs! Keeping in mind that barefoot is your natural state, any shoes that elevate the heels provide undue strain on the body—the same effect as walking down a hill every time you go anywhere. This is true even if the heel is only slightly higher than the ball of the foot, which is the case even in shoes perceived as “flat.”
If you have to wear shoes, you would do well to shop from a company that considers the health effects of its line. Choosing a negative-heeled shoe, where the heel is slightly lower than the ball of the foot, puts the body’s mass back over the heels where it belongs and away from the front of the foot.
While traditional foot correctives like orthotic shoe inserts, certain medications, and bunion pads provide quick relief from pain, restoration of function is always needed to maintain or improve the health of your feet. Treatment of any foot condition is incomplete without actively practicing the mechanically correct movements that will stimulate the muscles, nerves and blood flow required for normal function. Keep in mind that you “practice” movements or postures for 10,080 minutes every week; the key is to practice the correct movements not only during therapy or yoga sessions, but while standing in lines, walking to you car, and every other time you can remember! Here are a few exercises for you to try.