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Time to go barefoot?

Over the past 13 years since graduating, the most common factor I am finding with my back pain and knee pain patients is that they have poorly functioning feet. You may wonder how your feet impact your back and knees, but they are your first point of contact with the ground. How they function, or dysfunction, has a chain reaction up the body to your ankles, knees, hip and ultimately your lower back.

Ultimately, feet dysfunction because they are stiff and have developed muscular imbalances or weaknesses, essentially becoming desensitised. If you think about the anatomy of your feet and ankles, they are not dissimilar to your hands and wrists. They have five toes like fingers, an arch like the palm and a super mobile set of bones making up the ankle joint, similar to the wrist. They are, therefore, designed to move, just like your hands.

The modern shoe, however, has discouraged our foot from naturally moving. When we walk, ideally our toes should spread allowing us to lightly grip the ground before stretching maximally to propel us forward. As we have discovered with poor posture, the body adapts to its environment.

Feet are one of the most sensitive parts of our body due to their abundance of nerve endings, hence why feet are so ticklish. If we are forever covering up our feet and giving them soft squishy soles to walk on, these nerve endings do not get excited as they were designed to do, so the brain switches them off. The intrinsic muscles of the foot then become weak.

If your feet are forced into narrow shoes, the toes cannot spread, grip or extend and therefore the muscles are not used effectively. The biggest impact this has is on your big toe. To walk effectively it needs to fully extend to allow a “toe-off” to propel you forward. Without this movement, it becomes stiff and arthritic. The adage of “if you don’t use it, you lose it" strikes again.

If the big toe is not moving correctly, this has a huge impact on the arch of your foot. This can lead to plantar fasciitis and Achilles problems, due to the abnormal forces placed on the tendons that create the arch in the foot. The arch along with your Achilles tendon is designed to absorb forces and spring you forward. Without foot and ankle mobility, the tendons can tighten and thicken causing various foot issues.

So, you must be thinking, how can I change my foot health?

It is not something you can do quickly and it will take time. Do not just throw all your current shoes out and start going barefoot everywhere, as your body will not be ready for it and you are likely to get injured. As with all new regimes, you need to ease your body into it with the appropriate new load to make adaptive changes.

Follow this simple guide:

1) Go barefoot in the house – ditch your slippers and allow your feet to feel the different surfaces and climb the stairs. Then start to challenge your feet with difference surfaces in the garden, concrete paths, decking, grass and eventually tarmac and gravel. I certainly do not recommend walking barefoot on gravel beaches, but a few steps here and there will really light up those nerve endings and switch your foot muscles back on.

2) Toe-ga - essentially a simple set of exercises for the toes. Check out this video to get you started.

3) Toe-spacers - these may look gimmicky, but they can be found super cheap on amazon and who doesn’t want to do something beneficial for your body by putting your feet up? Keep your spacers by the TV remote; every time you settle down to your favourite show, pop these on and your feet will feel super stretched and relaxed.

4) Check current footwear - To check if your shoes are suitable take out the insole and stand on them. If your toes spread over the edge of your insole, then they are simply too small as inside the shoe your toes will be crushed together. Your toes should fit to the shape of the insole.

5) New shoes - buy yourself your first pair of barefoot or minimalist shoes. Don’t go wearing them all day or you will get sore feet. Start with just an hour or so round the house then progress to wearing them for the morning and then the afternoon. Likewise, with going for a walk start with short walks and build up until your feet get used to them. It won’t take long! Our favourite brands are Splay Shoes, Vivobarefoot, Lems, but there are many more out there.


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