A blog post about penguins? No, quite literally about making our feet happy. If you've been to any of my classes, at some point you will have been frustrated with foot exercises; the brain sending signals to the feet and then the feet doing something completely different. We'll explore in a little more detail here why I think feet are one of THE most important areas of the body to get healthy and functioning.
If you think logically, the entire body is stacked upon our feet, meaning if there is any form of dysfunction in the foot, it has to be compensated for somewhere else up the chain. The American physician and pioneer of myofascia release, Janet Travel stated
'A compromised foot structure is a major perpetuating factor in the development of chronic muscular skeletal pain throughout the body'
The biochemist and creator of structural integration (or Rolfing technique), Ida Rolf said
'Only by bringing peace 'from the ground up' can problems higher up the body be 'understood''
The foot is an incredibly complex structure containing over a quarter of all the bones of your body. It needs to be stable to help us to stand, but equally it needs to be agile and spring like to help us to walk and run. But then we go and stick it in a shoe and wonder why we cannot do toe exercises in class.
Look at the shape of your foot. Now go and have a look at the shape of your shoes. There's a huge difference going on there. It wouldn't be so bad if the shape of your shoe was drastically different but bigger, like for example a big baggy jumper. But imagine wearing a corset every day. We just wouldn't do that to our body in this day and age, so why do we do it to our feet?
I don't want to go too heavy into biomechanics. If you want to geek out with me sometime I will most probably be doing a foot workshop this year. But it's important to get a grasp of the damage we're doing. Janet Travel discovered something that became known as 'Morton's Toe'. This was a natural occurrence in 10-20% of people, where the second metatarsal (bone leading to the toes which footballers love to break) is longer than the first. The result is that in walking the entire body weight is being into that metatarsal instead of two thirds going into the first as we are designed to do. She discovered that with the fascia network, this was causing problems in lower backs, knees, thighs and hips.
Look again at the shape of your shoes. Over time our toes take on this same pointy shape which has been shown to once again distribute the body weight into the second metatarsal, so recreating the effects of 'Morton's Toe'.
Sadly it get's worse when it comes to footwear. You may not notice it, but nearly every shoe has an elevated heel. Just one look at the graphic gives a shocking indication of what this does to the body. More worryingly, for the majority of us that is day in, day out. A lot of us will be wearing cushioned soles, maybe with a pretty air bubble in the heel (I'm looking at you Air Max...drool). This helps us to think it's ok to strike our heel down heavily, then the foot rolls using the natural shape of the sole and the elevated toe. This leads us to completely changing our stride, also known as gait. We take a lot longer strides than is functional, which again causes problems further up the body. The heel means our ankles are rarely at 90 degrees, let alone in a greater ranger of (dorsi)flexion as nature intended, so the back line of the body (achilles tendon upwards) becomes accustomed to this shortened position giving it problems in lengthening.
I wish it was over as my fingers are suffering from all that shoes are causing, but sadly it's not. Shoes are numbing our sensory feedback. With thick cushioned soles, the feet receive little information to send to the brain. Think about a time you've walked on concrete or maybe even Brighton's lovely pebbles in bare feet, going 'oooo' 'aaaah' 'ouch'. I used to think this was because the skin on my feet was soft and sensitive. Yes it is, but what's actually going on is the brain is being bombarded with signals it isn't used to. It's the same as a deaf person wearing a hearing aid for the first time and therefore even a whisper sounds loud to them. That has become our sensory norm.
Over time this leads to a decrease in neural pathways between the feet and the brain (use it or lose it principle) which has dangerous precedence. If your feet are not receiving information from the surface you're standing on, it's pretty tough to keep you standing upright. If the neural pathways are decreasing, then any information that is being sent may not even be getting received. I know this is why I rolled my ankle so many times. I also think this is a HUGE contributing factor for falls in the older populations (I have a feeling research has already been done in this, but I have about 50 research papers printed off to read at the moment, so cannot clarify this just yet. At the moment this just my hypothesis which makes sense when you think logically about it).
So are we all doomed? I think it's never too late.
1. Educate yourself. Never listen to just one person and accept their view, including me! I have tried to keep this relatively brief, but there is a huge amount of research and information out there. If you are on Instagram I highly recommend the following accounts:
The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes by L. Daniel Howell is a really well informed but accessible read.
There are heaps of research papers in medical journals if you have access.
Come to my workshop when I run it.
2. Wear your shoes less. Think about around the house, and in summer, walking without your shoes on.
3. Look after your feet with foot exercises and self massage of the feet to build up the connections to the brain, and increase mobility. In my previous blog post on the importance of feet here (I do seem to hark on about them quite a lot) there is a foot massage video you can follow.
4. Buy toe separators. Start off wearing them for a short amount of time and slowly increase. Over time your toes will return
5. Buy 'barefoot' shoes. These are thin soled, EXTREMELY flexible, flat soled, and also shaped like a foot. Companies to look at are:
Feelgrounds (launching in April)
Start by wearing them only for a few hours. You'll be amazed at how different they feel to traditional footwear and the body needs to adapt to this. Slowly increase the amount of time you wear them. Be prepared for your feet to change size. My feet grew a size as my toes expanded, but also my tight, high arch started becoming more mobile and of normal height (so flattening the foot a little). Equally, if you have flat feet, you may find the arch becomes more active and so the feet may reduce in size.
I've now been wearing barefoot for about three quarters of a year. At first I thought I wouldn't convert fully to them as humans weren't designed to walk on concrete. I thought it would be good to mix them up with normal trainers. But that changed when I thought about how in hot climates there would be surfaces as hard as concrete. I also only ever rolled my ankle in normal trainers. In barefoot shoes I could feel the foot step on an uneven surface which would usually cause an ankle roll for me, but my body would immediately respond by putting less weight on the leg. The body is truly remarkable when we let it actually do it's things. My feet feel more mobile as expected, but so does the rest of my body. The biggest thing I love is how walking becomes a greater sensory experience. Feeling all that is going on under your feet makes it a lot more mindful and a whole new experience.
I am not saying that if you bin all of your shoes and walk around barefoot all of the body's aches and pains will disappear. But it will make a huge difference to your body over time, and most importantly, I believe it will go a long way in keeping you upright as you get older.
If you are looking to buy some barefoot shoes, and Vivobarefoot take your fancy, give me an email and I can do a referral to get you £25 off your first purchase. This wasn't an elaborate way to get money off my shoes I promise!