Your feet matter more than you realize. I will not go heavy with the anatomy but here are some numbers for you about the feet. There are 28 bones, 33 joints, 112 ligaments, 13 extrinsic muscles (superficial/surface) and 21 intrinsic muscles (deep muscles). The foot has a rigid structure for weight bearing and it has a flexible structure to conform to uneven surfaces. This makes sense when you look at all of the parts of the foot. Here is a quick list of things the foot functions as:
- Support body weight
- Provide balance/stability
- Shock absorption
- Transferring ground reaction forces
Now I know it is not the sexiest thing to talk about, but the foot has a huge impact on how we move throughout the day. Think about it, the foot has to hold our weight, and it is the first thing to be in contact with the ground. If your foot is not strong enough or mobile enough then the body up the kinetic chain has to compensate for the dysfunction. You need sufficient mobility and stability for all its functions, lack one and you will see dysfunction.
Mobility is needed to be able to absorb the ground reaction force of the body. A little physics reminder on what ground reaction force is: “According to Newton’s third law the so-called ground reaction force (GRF) is the force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it. When a person is just standing, the GRF corresponds with the person’s weight. When the body is moving, the GRF increases due to acceleration forces.”
Stability is needed to provide a stable base for the body. Remember, the foot has to bear our weight, if the foot is unstable then it has to find stability in another area in the body. The foot will set a foundation (see what I did there) for every movement you make.
One thing that will influence your feet will be the shoes you wear and how often you are barefoot. Here is what I mean about your shoes, modern shoes tend to have a narrow toe box and elevated heels. Here is how that can create dysfunction. Shoes can actively deform the feet by adapting to the small toe box, making the toes squeeze together. This is not natural, but has become normal. Great example of what natural feet look like are babies’ feet. They are untouched by shoes and their toes are spread wide. Ideally that’s what we should have, wide toes to help have a bigger foundation for support. Unfortunately, modern shoes are about fashion, not so much about function. So just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s natural.
Having your heels elevated from shoes can cause many issues for the body, take a look:
- Stresses the knee due to compensation
- Alters the tilt of the pelvis (rotating forward)
- Arches & stresses low back
- Upper back hunches
- Projects the head forward
As you can see, just having the heels elevated creates many dysfunction throughout the whole body. Your body makes these changes in order to stay upright while standing.
Barefoot activities can assist in improving the functioning in your foot, increasing the natural arch, strength, and stability. A strong foot is a healthy foot.
30% of 65 year olds will experience a fall and that number increases to 40% after 75 years old. Funny enough 30% of older adults also have foot problems and are associated with falls. Remember, yoru feet are responsible for stability and balance, when you have the ability to spread your toes, it improves your sense of balance. Other factors are at play here that can be involved like environmental hazards, slow reaction time, and muscle weakness. You might not be able to control what happens in your surroundings, but luckily you can improve your strength, balance, and reaction time with resistance training.
Being barefoot more often will help strengthen the feet as well as specific exercise for the feet.
Here are some simple exercises that you can do anywhere:
- Toe spreads ( literally work on spreading your toes wide and hold for time.
- Toe Raises (Alternate raising the big toe and then your other toes for reps)
- Short Foot (spread your toes and actively push into ground and try to pull them in. You will hold this for time, started seated then standing on both legs and progress to single leg)
Many other exercises can help with the feet, especially if you train barefoot and do single leg exercises. Word of caution though, don’t go from wearing shoes all the time to being barefoot. Just like any other muscle, if you work it hard and often it can cause some injury. Take it slow, walk around the house barefoot, warm up the feet with these exercises. There are barefoot shoe options that provide wide toe boxes and no heel rising. These have been great for me but did take some time to get used to. Again, take it slow if you are wanting to be more conscious of your foot health.
Barefoot brand options that I like:
- Splay Athletics
- Bearfoot Athletics
There are many more, these are the ones I am more accustomed to.
Be aware of what your feet are doing, how it moves and how they feel. It is not natural for our feet to be squished together and heels elevated. Your feet and your body will thank you when you become aware and actively working on strengthening your feet.