Our modern way of life means more comfort and convenience but also less movement and connection to our natural environment, with a high cost to our health.
Our feet are very important - they are our foundation and are involved in all our weight-bearing activities. They play a huge part in our health. Yet, we put them in movement-restricting socks, tights and shoes and sit for long hours mostly indoors. We rarely let our feet support our body and our toes wiggle free. Because we don't use our feet, they become weaker, which means our whole body becomes weaker as it is no longer supported by a strong foundation.
If you suffer from any issues anywhere in the body, whether in your feet, knees, hips, pelvic floor, back or neck, it is highly likely that your feet have been weakened by years of wearing shoes and living a sedentary lifestyle. Having said that, your feet can be weak even if you are active but rarely let your feet support your body - for example if you spend a large part of your time riding a bike outside or in a gym, swimming and rowing. Your body may be active, but your feet are almost certainly not. You may be doing lots of running, walking, hiking or playing team sports but if you wear supportive shoes, your feet lose the opportunity - and therefore the ability - to move and will (or have) become stiff and weak.
To be more precise, if you wear shoes with a built-in arch support, the muscles that create the arch will not be needed so they will stop working and atrophy; your feet will flatten at the arch, taking the knees with them into internal rotation so that they no longer point forward but inward, weakening the soft tissues that can no longer provide joint stability, overloading the inside of the knee, which in turn weakens the hips and surrounding soft tissues.
Also, if you wear shoes with a narrow toe box, the muscles that spread your toes apart will no longer have the opportunity to perform their function and will therefore lose this ability.
If you wear shoes with an inflexible upper, your toes will lose the ability to extend in the push-off phase of gait. If you wear shoes with a toe spring - a slight lift at the front - your toes will be kept in extension (up) rather than be allowed to move up and down. The shoe provides the function so the muscles in the feet no longer have to and eventually they no longer can.
If you wear shoes with any elevation at the heel, your hips no longer stack vertically over your knee over your ankle, which means that, with the effect of gravity, you are putting more weight on the front of your knees and on your toe joints and less on your hip joints, which will weaken due to overloading and under-loading respectively. As a result, the muscles at the front of your legs are overused and the muscles are the back are underused, with an increased risk of injury.
Finally, if you wear shoes with an inflexible sole, the fascia - connective tissue that covers the bottom of your foot - will no longer be moved, stretched and massaged with each step because your weight will no longer be smoothly transferred from your heel to the ball of your foot. Instead of your movement being smooth and unconstrained, your shoe (and therefore your foot) will slam down on the ground in one jerky move. Try and walk barefoot and pay attention to hard your feet hit the ground. Hearing and feeling how heavy my steps were was a huge surprise to me when I first went barefoot!
There are 26 bones in each of our feet (28 if you count the 2 little sesamoid bones near the big toe joint). Bones lose density when we don't let them support our weight. If we sit more than we stand and move, our bones will not need to be strong to support the body and will weaken over time, leading to bone loss, with an increased risk of fractures. The study Shod vs Unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans concludes that modern footwear and surfaces have contributed to the recent emergence of common changes in the bones of our feet, especially affecting the first metatarsal joint and big toe.
Each of our feet has 33 joints, which means our feet can not only support our weight but also articulate in many different ways, to cope with different natural, uneven terrains, different textures and inclines. They were designed for movement, complex movement. I wonder why so many of us persist in fitting our rectangular-shaped feet into triangular-shaped shoes. The problem is not with our feet, but with the shoes we may love the look of, but which wreak havoc on our bodies.
Our feet have many muscles and tendons attaching them to bones as well as ligaments linking bones together and fascia connecting everything together. Anything that restricts movement has a negative impact on every part of our anatomy. Lack of movement means lack of blood flow so freshly oxygenated blood doesn't irrigate and repair tissues, Muscles act as a pump, by contracting and relaxing, so if they don't get to move, they can't return blood back to the heart, which has to work harder. Lack of movement also interferes with the flow of waste-carrying lymph, which can pool and result in leg swelling.
Calluses are a natural outer layer that protects the skin. Most people have lost this protection because of not going barefoot. Going barefoot stimulates the production of keratin, which is what calluses are made of. The ball of the foot, the heel and the underside of the big toe are the areas where you would expect to see that extra tissue in response to pressure every time our foot makes contact with the ground. Observation of calluses on the feet gives a good idea of how you use (or don't use) your feet, where you bear weight and whether you use your foot evenly.
Give your eyes and neck a break and listen to this BBC radio programme which explains the effect of modern living on our feet (click the picture above). We're not talking high heels but running shoes, and our relatively new habit of spending the bulk of our day sitting rather than moving. Feet adapt to our sedentary ways and when we call upon them in the odd bout of exercise or when we decide to go for a run, we are likely to get injured. Going from not using our feet to suddenly using them a lot is an obvious recipe for injury.
Shoes deform our feet and interfere with their natural function, as described above. For more details on all the foot conditions that are linked to our footwear, read 90% of foot ailments are caused by or made worse by shoes.
Shoe designers totally ignore basic anatomy of human feet. They will design a pretty looking pair of shoes that look good on the shelf but that don't do our bodies any favours. I believe that shoes should come with a health warning! However, they don't (yet) so It is up to each and everyone of us to decide what our feet need.
I'm offering some solutions to our modern predicaments below, based on my training and experience as soft tissue therapist and movement teacher.
The first step I took was to free my feet from shoes, indoors first, then outside in the grass, and experience feeling the air flowing around my toes, the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the wind on my feet. Movement seemed totally impossible at first but I persevered and eventually, I noticed small but steady improvements.
The third step was to include many different exercises that aim to restore range of movement in every joint and function in every single muscle of my feet, ankles, knees and hips.
The fourth step was to expose my feet to various surfaces, first indoors, in a "safe" space free of debris, using a tennis ball, a box of stones and a textured mat, then outdoors - in my garden, on holiday, at work and increasingly just about everywhere!