Our feet are engineered to withstand the entire weight of our bodies, navigating whatever unsteady environment we may be traveling over, and to help propel us through space as we walk, run, jump, and wait in line.
How our feet interact with the ground sets up chain reactions all the way up to our heads, called kinetic chains. When bodyworkers, personal trainers, and physical therapists talk about a kinetic chain, they are referring to the influence on one part of our body based on where the rest of it is moving. Since our feet are usually touching the ground, they are the biggest players in the kinetic chain
Unfortunately for us, once we're about a year old we've already been fitted with boxes that fit around our feet. As we get older the shoes get harder, and our feet gradually become weaker. Common thought is that we need "arch support," a section of shoe that fits snugly against every curve of the inner arch of our foot. However, the arch of our foot is meant to act as a spring, easily moving in and out of pronation (arch against the ground) and supination (arch up off the ground).
We also have a muscle that runs from our large toes up into our lower leg that acts as a super-propeller, called the flexor hallucis longus (FHL). As we move through life with shoes that restrict our foot mobility, all of the muscles start to lose their strength, which compromises the structure of our feet. The longer we walk around with a weakened foot structure, the more they start to ache, we get flat feet and plantar fasciitis, and bunions begin to form.
This weakened structure causes ripples through our whole body, resulting in all kinds of misalignments that can lead to knee, hip, back, and even shoulder pain. Our body is not made up of many different parts the way it is often talked about, and is in fact one whole system. Of course, the point of wearing shoes is for protection, utility, and, let's not forget, fashion. But with the continued rise of foot surgeries, orthotics, and pain medication, we have to look at ourselves as the whole kinetic chain to get to the root cause of all these imbalances.
Here are four things you can do to reclaim your feet:
1. Walk around in socks or bare feet whenever you can.
Shoeless feet is a good first step, and investing in flatter shoes with a thinner sole helps your feet interact with the ground even more throughout the day. Moving through your feet as you walk, letting them push you along and swing easily as you get to the next step helps wake up those important foot and lower leg muscles.
2. Use tennis ball support.
Rolling your feet with tennis and small bouncy balls helps bring more blood flow and awareness to the parts of our feet that have become inactive over time. Even changing the bag you carry every day affects how you walk around!
3. Move often.
Walking is something most of us do every day, and having a freer, healthier walk enables all of the joints in our bodies the space they need to function properly. This also helps us avoid premature degradation of cartilage and of the joints themselves. Do yourself a favor and get your feet moving, change up the way you carry things around throughout your day, and give yourself a foot massage before bed. Not only will you be helping to get much-needed blood flow and space into your feet, but it's always nice to reward yourself at the end of a hard day's work.
4. Do foot-strengthening exercises.
With your foot flat on the ground, try moving your large toe away from your other toes along the floor, making space between your large and second toes. It's hard! Strengthening that muscle can help reinvigorate your arch, fight the formation of a bunion on that foot, and increase the large toe's ability to do its job of helping you walk.