Did you know 80% of Americans will have foot issues at some point in their lives? Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our foot health, until something starts to hurt. Plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammertoes, neuromas… all of these things can affect our comfort and mobility and lead to serious outcomes like surgery or spending our golden years unable or afraid to walk due to pain or fear of falling.
Foot issues may seem like a small deal right now, but starting to take care of your feet today may end up saving you a world of pain later down the road. Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to improve the health and function of your feet. And one of the biggest things on that list? Footwear. Yes, what you put on your feet matters. It matters a lot. So, let’s talk about shoes.
When you are looking for shoes, what do you typically look for? Something stylish? Comfy? Preferably both, right?
Well, I’m here to share a few other characteristics you may want to look for next time you find yourself shopping for a new pair of kicks.
Flat (no heel)
Having a heel on your shoe (even that seemingly small rise in the back of your tennis shoes) throws your whole body out of alignment. With that little wedge under your heel, you can no longer stack your weight vertically over your ankle, so everything has to adjust to keep you balanced and upright. This can lead to issues like back pain, knee pain, osteoporosis in the hips, and even pelvic floor disorder. It also places extra weight on the delicate bones at the front of your foot which can speed the progression of bunions and other foot problems. Look for a shoe that doesn’t have any rise in the heel. The term “zero-drop” is now commonly used by athletic footwear companies to indicate that there is no difference in height (drop) between the toe and heel of the shoe.
Wide Toe Box
Most shoes these days taper in toward the end of the toes, squishing our toes together. The natural alignment of our toes is actually wider than the ball of our foot, not narrower. Not only does this interfere with the foot’s ability to function the way nature designed, it also reduces blood flow to the cells and nerves in our feet. Blood flow is essential for bringing oxygen to and removing waste from cells. Keeping our feet in this bound position can contribute to bunions, neuromas, and other foot pain. Look for a shoe that has a wide toe box. You should be able to freely spread and wiggle your toes inside the shoe. If the shoe has a removable insole, you can take the insole out and stand on it to get an idea of how much room your toes have to spread. If your foot is hanging over the edge of the insole, that shows you how much your toes will need to be squished together in order to wear that shoe. Note that most shoes that come in widths (B, D, E, etc) are usually just made wider at the ball of the foot, not the toe. So you might be wearing a “wide” shoe but still be squishing your toes. Keep an eye on the amount of taper, and when in doubt, do the insole test.
Did you know your feet have 33 joints? Each? A quarter of our bodies’ bones and muscles are in our feet. And we hardly use them at all! When we wear thick, stiff footwear, we aren’t allowing any of those joints and muscles to move and work dynamically. We often use our feet more like big, paddle-like lumps at the ends of our legs rather than the hand-like structures they are. And not using those joints means our body has to outsource that work to other joints. Like the work of balancing. If your feet aren’t able to chip in by sensing the changes in terrain and adapting to them, that means your ankles and knees are going to have bear the full burden. Not to mention, there are many sensory nerves in the feet that connect all the way up to the spine and send helpful information to the brain. Wearing stiff, inflexible shoes cuts off that information train and leads to a decline in proprioception. Look for shoes with flexible soles that allow you to feel more of the ground and mobilize more of those joints. More flexible usually means thinner, so this may be a gradual transition if your feet are on the more sensitive side. I like to think of the added texture underfoot as a mini foot massage! Each time you step on a rock, that creates a pressure point, which, when released, sends fresh blood flowing to that area, nourishing the cells and nerves. When checking for flexibility, grab the shoe at the ball of the foot (not the toe) and the heel and try bending the sole in half and also twisting side to side to get an idea of how much movement your feet will be getting in that shoe.
Well Attached Upper
The upper of the shoe is the material across the top and back of the foot. Flip flops are great for hanging out poolside, but when it comes to a shoe that you will be spending some time walking in, you’ll want to find something that attaches securely to the foot. A sandal with a backstrap, for example. You might not even notice it, but walking in a shoe that is not securely attached can cause the toes to engage in a micro gripping action in an attempt to keep the shoe on. This can lead to issues such as hammertoes. A loose shoe can also cause you to inadvertently change adjust your gait pattern and not take full, natural strides.
No Toe Spring
Toe spring refers to the amount of lift at the toe end of a shoe. If the toe seems to curve up at the end, it will also be holding your toes in that curved up position. This can create an imbalance in the toe and foot musculature, shortening the muscles across the top of the toes and overstretching the muscles in the arch of the foot, which could contribute to issues like plantar fasciitis. Look for a shoe that has little to no gap between the end of the toe box and the ground. Shoes with thick, stiff soles usually add more toe spring to make it possible to roll through the end of the shoe – so that’s another good reason for shifting toward thinner, more flexible soled shoes.
As with any new workout routine, you’ll want to give your body time to adjust to the changes you are making. Especially if you have spent many years in high heeled or highly cushioned footwear. You may be asking your muscles to work in ways they have not had to for a long time. While switching to a wider toe box is something most people can do right away to start helping their feet, you may want to take a more gradual approach when it comes to reducing the height of a heel or thickness of a sole. Women who wear high heels regularly can have as much as a 13% shortening in their calf muscles over time, so if you fall into that category, maybe start by switching to a lower pair of heels first before going full-on zero drop. As always, listen to your body. Some discomfort and soreness (like you might experience with any exercise) can be normal, but if you are having pain or any other signal that causes concern, back off and seek the advice of a qualified health practitioner.
I Changed My Shoes, What Now?
While changing your shoes is a vital step in restoring the health of your feet, you may need to do more than that to help feet that have been crammed in restrictive shoes for many years. Often the muscles have grown weak and the alignment of bones and muscles are out of whack. Adding some foot-focused exercises to your daily routine is the next step in regaining the full and natural function of your feet.
My Healthy Happy Feet course will lead you through exercises for the feet, legs, and hips that will help strengthen and mobilize the muscles and joints of this area, as well as give you tips for how to integrate more foot healthy movement into your everyday life. Let’s start giving our feet the support they need to carry us through a long and healthy life!