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.
Kneeling and squatting.
Two positions that are missing from the movement vocabulary of a lot of people.
There are numerous reasons why either of the above positions might be inaccessible. Your hips and knees could be the problem areas. So could tight leg muscles. But one particular factor is not having enough range of motion at the ankle. I still struggle with this myself. Notice there are two photos of me squatting. One of them shows my heels off the ground. That's how I squat without assistance. The only way I got my heels down for the bottom right photo was by holding on to the couch for balance.
Why the heck are our ankles so stiff? A good part of that stiffness is from the shoes we wear and from how we use our feet. Or rather don't use our feet. Stiff shoes keep your joints from moving to their fullest range of motion. Having the heel higher than the toes (even most "flat" shoes have a heel) shortens muscles that impact mobility. And walking on flat, smooth surfaces prevents us from exploring the variety of movements that the ankle and foot are capable of making. (And yes, injuries can also be implicated here. I did some serious damage to my ankles decades ago.)
"Who cares if I can't squat or kneel?" I hear you ask. "That is what chairs are for." Well, actually, not using all the range of joint mobility humans are designed for turns out to have overall health consequences. It is hard to miss all the headlines proclaiming that sitting is the new cancer. But it isn't actually just sitting that is the problem. It is not moving that is the problem. And the less you move, the less you CAN move. The ability to get down on the floor and back up with ease (the Sit/Rise test) is a predictor of longevity. Squatting in particular has implications for digestive health as well as hip, knee, and ankle health. Healthier joints = healthier you.
Given all the ways we create tight muscles and joints in the feet and ankles, it occurred to me to show you two simple poses that you can do anywhere. One brings extension to the top of the foot while contracting the muscles in the bottom of the foot and the calves. The other contracts the muscles on the top of the foot and the front of the shin while extending those on the bottom of the foot and the calves. Practicing one pose helps the other, as you'll see in the video. (NOTE: Chair pose is not squatting. If you want to add squatting to your world, you will need to strengthen those gluts in addition to loosening up a variety of joints. A whole other blog post coming soon on the subject. Meanwhile, you can check out this for a bit of squatting help.)
Tight muscles are not strong muscles. They limit your mobility, impinge your joints, and when stressed, they tear. Try these two poses. If your ankles and feet are tight, don't hold these for very long. Go gently. I use the word "Painful" in the video, but really I mean tender or intense. If it is painful to do the Top of the Foot Stretch, try the seated modification I mention. Alternate the poses and see how one pose affects the other. Watch your stiff ankles become a bit more flexible.
I hope this will encourage you to keep your body moving. Ankles are as a good a place to start as any other body part. As you have the ability to move more, move more. Use it or lose it is pretty accurate when it comes to your physical abilities. And improved physical ability leads to Healing and Balance.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.