You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. ~ Dr. Seuss
Feet are your foundation; their health impacts your whole body. The shoes you choose make a big difference. What should you look for on your next shoe shopping mission?
A lightweight, flexible sole.
Your feet need to be adaptable and mobile. They contain a rich network of sensory receptors to help you make the necessary adjustments to safely traverse the terrain. A thick, stiff sole reduces your interaction with the ground, interfering with input to the sensory nerves and limiting the ability of the many tiny muscles and joints to adjust accordingly.
Stiff shoes also restrict the mobility of your feet for natural gait – heel down, foot flat, heel up and finally toes off. As a result, the ankle has to do more work which strains the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
A roomy toe box.
Your toes need room to move. Forcing them into a cramped, narrow space not only changes the position of the bones and joints but also leads to decreased circulation, muscle atrophy, and nerve degeneration. Corns, bunions, Morton’s neuroma anyone?
Firm attachments to the foot.
Flip flops are perfect for the pool, especially if you want to avoid plantar warts, but for every day wear they’re not a very functional choice. To keep then on your toes have to clench and grip. Over time, the result can be less than pretty as your toes become fixed in a position described as hammer toes. Shoes that aren’t firmly attached can also contribute to trips and falls.
No or low heels.
Heels pitch your body forward and out of alignment. According to Podiatrist Dr. William Rossi, a two-inch heel will change the angle of your body in relation to the ground from 90 degrees to 70 degrees. Obviously, you would fall forward at that angle, so the muscles in the back of your leg – calves and hamstrings – shorten and tighten to keep you upright.
A study by Csapo et al. found chronic high-heel wearing can result in calf muscle shortening by as much as 13%. The rest of your body compensates too; your pelvis tucks under and the curves in your spine change all the way to your head. Think plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, pelvic floor dysfunction, low back pain, even headaches! The shift of weight onto the front of your feet also puts more pressure on those muscles and joints, further contributing to tissue degeneration.
What are some good choices? Our Restorative Exercise certification week included a two-hour hike at Arroyo Verde Park to practice natural posterior-driven gait. We sported a variety of minimal shoes including Vibram FiveFingers®, Kalso Earth™, VIVOBAREFOOT™, Merrell® Barefoot, and Lems™, plus one intrepid barefoot soul! And no one complained about their feet hurting.
For a much more comprehensive list check out Katy Bowman’s Shoes: The List. She’s got a few ways to hack your existing footwear too.
A word of caution: If you’ve been wearing high heels for years you’ll need to transition slowly to lower heels before dropping down to barefoot shoes. You’ll also need to work on mobilizing your feet and restoring optimal length to your muscles (for full strength), so you don’t risk injury in the process. You can read more in Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear.
I can assess your alignment and stance, help you understand the impact on your entire body and show you some simple, corrective exercises. Then it’s up to you to make walking a regular part of your routine for whole body health from the ground up.
What are your favourite flat, flexible shoes? Please let me know so I can add them to the list.
Note: This post was originally published in February, 2013, just a few weeks after I completed my Restorative Exercise Specialist (RES) certification in Ventura, California. As part of our final exams, we each taught two “Stance & Gait Essentials” private sessions to people from the local community. My clients were textbook cases; both had foot pain plus back pain – no surprise!
Bowman, K. (2011). Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief. Dallas (TX): BenBella Books
Csapo, R., Maganaris, C. N., Seynnes, O. R., & Narici, M. V. (2010). On muscle, tendon and high heels. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 213(15), 2582-2588. doi:10.1242/jeb.044271
Rossi, W. A. (1999). Why shoes make “normal” gait impossible. Podiatry Management, (March), 50-61.
Rossi, W. A. (2001). Footwear: The primary cause of foot disorders. Podiatry Management, (February), 129-138.
Sherrington, C., & Menz, H. B. (2003). An evaluation of footwear worn at the time of fall‐related hip fracture. Age and Ageing, 32(3), 310-314. doi:10.1093/ageing/32.3.310