Would we keep wearing a hat that gave us a headache or a belt that fractured our ribs? The answer is, probably not. Yet, most of us wear shoes that have multiple negative impacts on the health of our entire body. Studies in leading scientific journals show that these reverberating effects start with painful and deformed feet and can migrate up to impaired bone density and a weakened pelvic floor.
According to The Journal of Gerontology, for example, a study examining senior populations showed that a history of wearing ill-fitting and highheeled footwear was specifically associated with poor balance, hammer toes, bunions and foot pain. Once thought to be genetic or age-related, researchers are now beginning to look at the impact that shoes have on the body.
Identifying the Culprits
The most detrimental part of the shoe to overall body structure seems to be heel height, which both increases tension in the plantar fascia (the thick connective tissue that supports the arch of the foot) and alters the position of the knees and lower back. The higher the heel, the tighter the muscles and fascia in the arch become, until walking feels painful. A heel of any height also projects one’s body mass forward, increasing the pressure on the front of the foot, which can lead to soreness there and increase the risk for bunions.
Other harmful footwear characteristics also need to be evaluated. The narrow toe spaces of many fashion favorites not only limit the foot’s natural range of motion, they diminish the strength of the toes. Weakened foot and toe muscles, resulting from years of cramping toes into a too-small space, provide insufficient strength for proper balancing and, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology, the situation can even increase the risk of knee osteoarthritis.
Taking a Healthy Stride Forward
A lifetime of excessive shoe wearing and poor shoe choices means we need to make foot fitness a priority. It is possible to undo much footwear damage if we modify our habits. Try making the most of these foot exercises and shoe selection tips:
Stand with your hands on a wall or a chair. Put one leg back behind the torso and tuck these toes under, in order to stretch the muscles in the toes and feet. Cramping is normal, so take a break when needed, and then return to the stretch. Work up to holding the tucked position for a minute, repeating on each foot two to three times daily.
Everyone’s toes should be able to spread apart from each other, just as we can spread our fingers. Practice toe spreading every day to increase strength and flexibility in the feet, as well as circulation and nerve health. For faster results, slip toe spacers between the toes (available at local nail salons and drug stores) or wear toe alignment socks (e.g., MyHappyFeetColors.com) while watching TV or sleeping.
Shoe Closet Makeover
The second part of our foot makeover occurs at the shoe store when we select a flat or negative-heeled shoe (with the heel lower than the ball of the foot). Also make sure the width of the shoe fits well. A woman should always be able to spread her toes comfortably inside a shoe, paying close attention to the big and pinkie toes. Fortunately, more shoe designers are offering colorful, fun and sexy options these days in sandals, ballet flats and other stylish looks.
It’s also important to minimize the use of sandals or flip-flops that require the toes to grip onto the shoe when walking. The toe-gripping habit can lead to hammer toes, a problem that can be easily corrected with new footwear choices and diligent practice of foot exercises. The same is true for bunions, as long as we also correct our walking patterns. As a final note, remember that while a high-heeled or pointy-toed shoe may make us feel sexy, a limping or stiff gait looks far less attractive than a youthful, powerful stride.
Katy Bowman, a biomechanics scientist, holds a master’s degree in kinesiology and is director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, CA. She is the creator of the Aligned and Well™ DVD series of gentle corrective exercise prescriptions, including Fix Your Feet (AlignedAndWell.com). Learn more at KatySays.com.