In recent years, I've begun teaching more and more about foot health and the problems of most shoes we wear. One of the most common topics of concern is arch support. Whether it's flat feet, high arches, plantar fasciitis, or some other foot malady, "good arch support" seems to be the answer. But what if it's not?
Don't get me wrong, arch supports may be absolutely necessary in your world right now, but they most likely aren't necessary for the long term.
[Note from The Management: I am NOT advocating throwing away your supportive shoes and custom orthotics. Read on for my complete thoughts on the matter.]
If you break your foot, you will likely have it put in a cast. The cast is there to keep your foot immobilized while the bones heal. When your foot has healed and the cast is removed, your foot will be weak, the muscles atrophied, the joints stiff. Do you therefore put your foot back in a cast because it's weak and stiff? Of course not. You start physical therapy and work to restore mobility and strength to your foot.
Plantar fasciitis, collapsed arches, high arches and the like are certainly not a broken foot, but they can cause considerable pain and they most certainly are accompanied by weak muscles and tight joints. (Just a reminder, there are 33 joints in each foot. THIRTY-THREE! And they need to function fro your feet to be healthy.) Your orthopedist may well recommend "good," stiff, supportive shoes while you are in acute pain. You may be given arch supports to put in your current shoes. Either way, you are putting your foot in a cast. Arch support may not look like the cast you have for a broken foot, but it does the same thing. It splints your foot so the joints and muscles can't move fully while the inflammation goes down and the pain lessens. But once the pain has receded, do you really need to use them for the rest of your life? That is the common answer most orthopedists give: wear these forever; never go barefoot again; never buy shoes without good, solid arch support.
Why do we readily work to regain strength and mobility after wearing a plaster cast or boot, but we don't even consider physical therapy after wearing orthotics or stiff shoes?
(I don't have an answer to that question. I'd love to discuss it with some orthopedists some time.)
Having worked with numerous students and clients over the years, I have watched as feet become stronger doing simple restorative work on a daily basis. I do NOT tell those students to get rid of their arch supports (supportive shoes or orthotics). What happens instead is that over many months of foot restorative work, my students start to notice that the stiff shoes, the external support starts to interfere with the function of the feet. They start to wear the orthotics less or rediscover shoes with less support.
This does not happen quickly.
Let me repeat that: THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN QUICKLY.
I used to wear Converse a lot in my 20s. In my 30s, I started buying "good supportive shoes" and wearing them more often. I gradually found I couldn't wear the Converse anymore without my feet hurting. I thought this was a natural part of aging, needing better support in my shoes. But it was actually the stiff, supportive shoes that were causing the problem. As my feet no longer had to work to support themselves, they stopped being able to.
Two years ago, shortly before I turned 50, I started doing truly restorative work for my feet, their joints, muscles, arches. After about six months, I was back in Converse and could walk several miles in them with no problem. Six months of daily work on feet that weren't in any kind of daily pain, though I did have the occasional bout of plantar fasciitis. Six months for feet that are not in shoes when I teach or when I'm at home. Six months from a pretty strong starting point. Six. Months.
If your starting point is always wearing shoes, always wearing orthotics, already in pain, think well beyond six months. You are looking at a year or more, at a MINIMUM. Wear the orthotics. Wear the shoes you have. But if you really want healthier feet, you need to work to make them stronger and more mobile. You need to do the work BEFORE you change the external support, and for as long as you intend to have healthy feet.
I did a whole series of videos about a year ago called Sit Less Move More Foot Week. (I've linked to the first video in the series. There are four in total.) They are a good resource for general restorative work you can do for your feet. They are also a good source of info about shoes and some of the problems with what we think of as good shoes. If you're truly serious about your foot health (which directly leads to overall health), I'd love to meet with you, in person or online, to help you create a practice for your particular foot issues.
So ... do you need arch supports? If you're using them currently, yes, stick with them. But consider that with better function of your feet, you might not need them forever. Start where you are. Begin to move your feet more as you are able. And in time, those feet will move more for you.
If you've taken one of my foot clinics, walking clinics, or my yoga classes, you've heard me suggest walking on different surfaces. Get off the hard, flat, smooth surfaces of tile, sidewalk, etc. and walk in the grass, over rocks, in sand. I suggest this for the purpose of increasing foot strength and foot mobility, and for waking up muscles in the legs that don't get used that much.
Here's a way to experience this yourself. Go get a blanket and fold it up so it's fairly thick. Place it on the ground and step on it. Now keep stepping your feet. Try turning around, moving from side to side, just keep walking in place. Do this for two minutes. Go on. Do it. I'll wait.
Did you notice how you began to feel muscles in the sides of your legs waking up, possibly even getting fatigued? Maybe you felt it up near your hips or in your butt. By walking on the blanket, the surface under your feet was less stable. The surface dropped down lower as it received your body weight causing minor adjustments in your feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis. You didn't have to think about adjusting. Your body responded to the subtly shifting blanket unconsciously.
By walking on different surfaces, you create better function in all your muscles and joints. Change your terrain to increase your movement. But did you know there are other benefits?
Yesterday, I got a lesson in one of those other benefits. I joined my husband and sister-in-law to walk a 5K in their hometown. As expected, the route was on pavement. At the beginning, I stayed near my peeps and walked in the street. After a while, I could tell my legs and feet were getting tired of the hard asphalt. By then, the crowd had spread out along the route. I was near a grassy field, so I stepped out of the street and walked in the grass. I enjoyed the relief of the softer ground. I got a naturally occurring foot massage as my foot joints got to adapt to the uneven surface below them. And then I recognized that some of my muscles were now getting to rest as different muscles kicked into use.
Rest! It's not just increasing your movement by walking on varied terrain. It's about downtime for the overworked muscles.
We all know the term repetitive stress, but we usually think of it in terms of work environments that force us into over-used movement patterns. We are so accustomed to the unnatural level and smooth surfaces of our environment, we don't think of walking as an area of repetitive stress.
I encourage you to walk on grass or rocks or sand whenever you find some, or walk on folded blankets (try it during a commercial break while watching TV). Wear more flexible shoes so your feet and ankles can do their job of responding to the subtle changes of surface. If your feet are ready for it, try doing it barefoot. And if you are looking to increase your distance when walking, most definitely find other kinds of terrain to walk on. It will allow your tired leg muscles to rest while you build strength and mobility in your underutilized parts.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.