Caring for Your Feet, One Shoe at a Time
Unless you’re a full out body nerd (like myself) or a podiatrist, you probably didn’t know that April is national foot health awareness month, and since April is winding down, it's time to talk about your feet again. You may be wondering, “why is this relevant ?” or, “Geez, guess it was a slow day in health news.” Seriously though, do you have foot, ankle, knee, hip, back, or neck pain? Chronic, diagnosed, or undiagnosed? What about bunions, hammertoes, collapsed arches, plantar fascitis, bone spurs, or tendonitis? And did you know that you have 26 bones in each foot, adding up to 54 foot bones out of your total two hundred and six bones in your body? Any issue in the foot effects the whole body- high heels throw the knees, pelvis, and spine out of alignment, gait anomalies affect joint wear and tear in the ankle and knee, and a foot injury will affect gait, compensation patterns, and joint wear and tear, not to mention athletic performance and activity. Perhaps now you’re just a little bit more interested?
A recent study at the University of Maryland concluded that 75% of people in the United States have foot pain, which I think makes this discussion relevant to the wider world. As a culture, we are sedentary (even if you’re an athlete!) because we are sitting for 10-16 hours a day, most often in chairs. We then place our feet in ill fitting shoes with small toe boxes, elevated heels, and non-flexible soles, and many of us attempt vigorous exercise with these constraints. Our sedentary lifestyles, poor shoes, and minimal walking habits coupled with intense bouts of exercise mean that the muscles of our feet have checked out. By constantly wearing shoes that restrict natural movement and toe position, we are essentially setting ourselves up for long-term issues, either in the foot or in the whole body.
When’s the last time you thought about self-care for your feet? When did you last try to stretch your toes out wide? How often do you wear elevated heels, i.e. the heel is above the toe? (PS. Many running shoes, cowboy boots, and men’s dress shoes have elevated heels, so this issue affects everyone!) One of the easiest ways to address whole body health is in your shoes, and your family’s shoes. I’ve long had right sided knee issues from a bike accident many years ago, which were always compounded by wearing heels, even "practical ones." When I stopped wearing elevated heel shoes on a regular basis, I had a huge improvement in my pain, and increase in endurance and mobility. So what’s the issue with wearing high heels on a regular basis?
#1: They limit your toe spread ability. Your toes have natural toe spread, believe it or not, and shoes with a small toe box limit that range.
#2: They push your big toe towards the little toes. Whether you have a bunion or know someone who does, bunions are no fun. Bunions are a bony lump at the MTP (metatarsolphalangeal joint), also known as hallux valgus, which results from a combination of different movement, shoe choices, and genetic factors.
#3: They put pressure on the big toe, which can encourage the body to build additional bone at the site of a present or future bunion, through a process known as Wolff’s Law.
#4: Heels force your calf muscle to contract perpetually, which may be some of the aesthetic appeal. In addition, the foot is trapped in plantarflexion, which can affect the plantar fascia, ankles, and musculature of the foot. However, shortened and overworked calf muscles can affect gait, standing alignment, and sitting alignment. In addition, elevated heels affect your ability to breathe fully because your diaphragm is affecting by your postural compensation.
#5: Heels move the pelvis and spine out of neutral alignment, either into a posterior tuck of the pelvis or anterior shift, which then will affect the spine, head, neck, and shoulders. If you watch someone in heels walk or stand, they will most likely be rounded in the upper body as a result.
Go grab a ruler and measure your day to day shoes. Notice if your sneakers or running shoes have a heel in relation to the front of the foot. Now take a look at your feet-where are your toes? Are they drifting towards each other with the big toe moving towards the little toes? Almost all of us wear shoes regularly with some sort of elevated heel, and varying your shoes and moving towards flatter shoes with a wider toe box can help. If you’re used to wearing heels, you soft tissues and muscles may need a transition period, as well as corrective exercises to begin naturally lengthening in response to your shoe choices. (http://www.katysays.com/sitting-in-heels-is-the-new-smoking/) Other suggestions: try being barefoot at home (or in socks) more often, skip flip flops (which cause our toes to grip with each step), and look for ways to strengthen the feet through Restorative Exercise, bodywork, self-massage, and physical therapy. Whether you’re going for a walk, attending a wedding (where women wear crazy impractical shoes) or just going out on the town, consider your feet, and notice the difference.
Last year, I did a series of foot posts, which you should check out! Shoes make a big difference in your whole body health, as noted in Katy Bowman's two books: Whole Body Barefoot and Every Woman's Guide to Foot Pain Relief.