Your foot is a complex feat of engineering and a critical element in how you stand, walk and balance. Of all your many body parts, your feet are likely the most neglected. One in four people ages 45 and older have foot pain, and approximately one in six have ankle problems. These numbers hint at the scope of the issue, but they leave out the many other health ailments that stem from achy, throbbing and painful feet.
Besides the obvious issues of the toes, arch and plantar fascia, foot pain can become a much larger, whole-body health issue. Two-thirds of those with chronic foot pain have reported their foot issue has created some sort of disability elsewhere in their lives—for example, decreasing balance while walking or standing, increasing osteoarthritis in the knees and hips, or preventing them from starting or maintaining a healthy walking program.
The good thing about foot health is that it takes just a little effort to make great improvements. Here are five ways to drastically improve the state of your feet starting now.
1. Exercise your feet.
You know that all muscles need regular exercise to stay healthy. Foot muscles are no different. Whether you are a gym rat or a couch potato, chances are you have never given much thought to the muscles that make the foot arch or the ones that move the toes. However, foot exercise is among the most basic health programs. You don't even have to get out of a chair to do it initially. Slip off your shoes and socks and get to work lifting each toe individually. Try it—it sounds a lot easier than it really is!
2. Spread the toes.
Toe abduction, or a movement of the toes away from each other, is a normal part of a healthy gait pattern. Years of carrying weight too far forward on the feet, wearing too-small shoes as a kid, and narrow toe boxes on certain styles of shoe have really limited the toe spreading motion. Selecting footwear that provides ample room to splay your toes when walking is the healthiest choice; ideally, your toes should spread just as the fingers do.
If tight toes have become a habit, foot alignment socks can work on spreading them for you. The perfect product for the proactive individual, you can work on restoring muscle and fascial tissue lengths while you watch television at night.
3. Get rid of the heel.
Podiatric journals have recently become riddled with articles illustrating that for every positive degree of heel (for a point of reference, the one inch found on a man's dress shoe creates an average angle of twelve degrees), there is a resulting angle of deformation in the lumbar spine, pelvis, knees and/or ankle. There is no footwear characteristic that jars one out of whole-body alignment faster than the positive heel. If a dress shoe creates twelve positive degrees, just think about what a stiletto can do to deform the rest of the body. Pause and choose well to avoid selecting footwear that undoes all your hard work and increases mechanical stress on a cellular level.
4. Be attached to your shoes.
It is surprising how quickly the flip-flop has moved beyond the favorite pool accessory to the ultimate fashion staple. Flip-flops are usually enjoyed for their lack of restriction—lots of fresh air and minimal friction. They're also time-friendly. Don't have time both to find matching socks and to bend down to tie your shoes? Flip-flops may have become your regular foot attire. One big drawback to the bikini of footwear, though, is the fact that it stays on your foot only with major muscle clenching and bony alteration. Research on gait patterns and poorly attached shoes demonstrates increased risk for hammer toes, plantar fasciitis and knee pain with flip-flops. Therefore, keep your favorite flops around for water and beach activities, and invest in the newer Roman-style sandals that offer the same open-air feel but with better binding.
5. Barefoot time is a necessity!
Optimal foot health is ultimately reached through full, shoeless interaction between nature and foot. Foot health can become compromised, however, when you walk on unyielding, human-made surfaces that may or may not be speckled with broken glass and other dangerous items. Small doses of going barefoot (wearing socks is okay, too) can be done in your home; just make sure the area is free of debris before you do. Have you seen those new glove-like shoes? They are new minimalistic footwear brands designed to help restore full function of the feet.
Before you go baring it all, however, keep in mind the supporting structures of the feet have been, for the most part, inert for the bulk of your life. Loading fresh arches on long walks after removing a lifetime of support can stress and strain tissues. It is important to think about building strength in the musculature of the feet just as we would with any other part of our body that has gone unused. Start with smaller doses of barefoot walking, and make sure you do lots of foot stretching in between walking sessions.
Katy Bowman, MS, is the author of Every Woman's Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet [BenBella]. She is the director of the Restorative Exercise Institute, a center for corrective exercise and biomechanical studies. Connect with her online at footpainbook.com.