The feet are probably one of the most underappreciated parts of the body for most people. They are frequently maligned for being smelly and unattractive even though they work harder than almost any other part. For many of us, the only time our feet get attention is when they are hurting or otherwise causing problems.
But if you think about it, feet have a pretty important role in our lives. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to use them daily, they carry around our full body weight, often for hours at a time. If we run or jump, they are required to absorb the shock of that added impact. Our feet have 33 joints that allow for varying degrees of movement, 28 bones and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments all encased in a network of fascia (connective tissue) working together to support the movement capabilities of our bodies. There are also many sensory nerve endings and pressure points that provide the body and brain with different stimuli so they can function optimally.
Problems begin when we stop using our feet to their full capacity. From the first pair of shoes we were told to wear, our feet started their lifelong deterioration. Most foot wear prevent our feet from working properly. Shoes with a heel that is higher than the toe will change the way the foot functions and put unnecessary stress and strain on the whole body. The higher the heel, the more the strain. This heel elevation affects the rest of the body as it is required to adjust itself to a different position when standing and walking. The more frequently the body is required to be in these positions, the less likely it is able to return to its original neutral position, thereby compromising the joint functions in the knees, pelvis and spine.
Wearing shoes is similar to having casts on our feet, especially if those shoes are intended to provide extra support for those who have regular foot or ankle pain. Orthotics are also not a great solution because they prevent the foot from working properly even more than shoes can. If your foot is constantly supported by an external source, how will it ever be able to function properly without it?
These solutions to foot pain are actually preventing your feet from functioning properly. They don’t allow the joints in your feet to move much, the soft tissue begins to atrophy from lack of proper use and the sensory functions are severely limited.
If you have been told that you have “flat feet” or fallen arches, this usually means that the muscles in your feet are not supporting your foot properly. There can be several factors causing this condition, including lack of proper stimulus (not walking around without shoes enough), restrictions in the soft tissue in other areas of your body that cause misalignment (pelvis, hips, knees) and genetic anomalies (to name a few). The first two factors can be addressed with positive outcomes without medical intervention.
So how can you start rehabilitating your feet? The first way is pretty simple. Just start spending more time walking around without shoes on. If you experience a lot of pain when you do this, do it in smaller time increments. Do more movements in your bare feet such as raising your heels off the floor and putting your weight into different parts of your feet while standing still. This movement will also improve your ankle mobility. Don’t be surprised if you feel some pain or discomfort with this process. Nothing changes in your comfort zone! Now I’m not suggesting you throw away your runners and run a marathon barefoot immediately. There is an adaptation period and it will be different for everyone. Go at a pace that works for you, never force anything and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.
Spending time walking barefoot on different surfaces will also help the rehab process. Let your feet feel what grass feels like again and beach sand and pebbly beaches. Walking on smooth pebbles can provide a great foot massage. The more time you spend walking barefoot on different surfaces, the more your feet will adapt to the sensory stimuli and challenge your proprioception (your sense of where your body is in space), which in turn, helps your balance – especially in elderly populations where balance becomes more of a problem.
You can also see a trained therapist for some Myofascial Release (MFR) to get your soft tissues soft again and to determine if there are other alignment problems contributing to your foot problems. Most people I have treated who have identified foot problems have also had restrictions in their calves, hamstrings and lower backs. The main problem is often the imbalance of the pelvis, which is another problem a trained MFR therapist can help you correct.
I have returned to a more barefoot lifestyle over the past five years and I now find it more uncomfortable and draining to wear shoes for any length of time. I find that I have a better sense of balance and I’m less likely to injure myself while walking or running on uneven surfaces because of the increased range of motion my feet and ankles have gained. I do a lot of activities in my minimalist footwear – running, hiking, CrossFit (includes powerlifting, Olympic lifting, jumping, etc) cycling, paddling and working.
Just remember, when you decide to embark on the rehabilitation of your feet that it is a journey. Your feet didn’t get that way overnight and the restoration process will depend on how much time and effort you spend on it. It’s definitely possible to feel immediate improvement but long term change can take a bit of time and dedication. Just know that it is possible!