I had the blues because I owned no shoes until on the street I met a man who had no feet – ancient Persian Proverb
Your feet are the foundation of movement. Without them life would be very different and if you’ve ever had a sore foot you know first hand how quickly you can be stopped in your tracks.
Each foot has 26 bones, 30 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Times that by 2 and your feet are jam packed with intricate parts that pound the pavement day after day after day for your entire life.
So why is it that we can go through life with little regard to the very thing that keeps us moving forwards? It seems that feet are disregarded until they cause problems and since pain is usually caused by poor movement patterns over a long period of time those sore feet have probably been ignored for a long long time before you even realise how important they are.
Not only are your feet super important, they are the foundation of lower limb mobility which means that healthy feet help with good health of the knees and hips.
I see many clients who come to the Pilates studio with lower limb issues which we identify as any part of the body from the pelvis down. Low back pain, sore hips that keep them up at night, aching knees that struggle up and down stairs or stiff feet that require expensive support just to get around.
Why are feet the root cause of other issues?
Well if you consider that every single joint in your foot is designed to give your whole body feedback from the ground you walk on plus support your entire body weight as you move on many different surfaces, under all sorts of conditions, then your feet have a very important task. From the day you take your first step until the day you take your last!
I think of the feet as antennas to the rest of the body. They absorb information from your environment (the ground) and transfer that information to your nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) so that you know how to respond. Your feet soak up that information like a sponge, and then your spinal cord sucks up that info, takes it to your brain which then sends information back so that you walk, jump, run and stand with ease, balance and control.
Your feet are full of proprioceptors – they tell your body where you are in space, how much tension you need in your muscles to perform the activity required to meet the environment, how much rebound is needed through your joints and how much force you must place down to move in whatever direction you are going. Imagine that entire process happening when you step on an uneven rocky surface – the information is sent from your proprioceptors in your foot, up to the brain and then the action message is sent back to the foot to help you balance and adjust the way you are walking. All of that happens in less than a millisecond and the entire process depends on those multiple muscles, joints and bones working in harmony together every waking moment.
To go barefoot or not
There are potentially many reasons people choose to wear shoes but not all of them are the best choice for foot health. Someone once called shoes ‘leather coffins’ and as a movement educator that name rings in my head when I see someone walking down the street in poorly fitted or badly designed shoes or when I meet someone suffering from foot problems. Wearing shoes all the time when you are young, when your feet are healthy and when you simply do not need to can be detrimental to your foot health because it prevents those proprioceptors from doing their job, it weakens the muscles in the feet and stops you from moving naturally.
It is one reason that we invite all of our clients to take off their shoes and exercise without them. The Pilates environment is perfect to encourage all those joints, muscles and bones to move the way they are designed to, without restriction and within a controlled load environment. We set up the specialised Pilates machines to help the foot move better, introduce weight bearing without stress and teach you all about the foot’s relationship to the knees, hips, pelvic floor and overall posture! It is common for us to introduce people with foot issues to barefoot exercises to help them regain strength, confidence and suppleness in a supported situation. We have great success in getting people out of their bad shoe habits that often begins with poor foot health and a lack of understanding of foot mechanics. We help people live without the pain and discomfort that foot issues can cause and teach them how to move with more freedom and ease.
Feet are the foundation of good movement and good foot health has a knock on affect throughout the body.
Foot health is associated with:
Knees and hips
As the two biggest load bearing joints in the body, your knees and hips rely on good foot movement, and adequate arch support to act as shock absorbers for the rest of the body. One of the first things we look at when working with hip or knee issues is foot mechanics, shoe choices and daily movement habits of the foot.
Pelvic floor and Diaphragm (breathing)
A unique way that Pilates looks at the body is in what I think of as shapes. There are many similarities in shapes throughout the body and these similarities often have very intimate and meaningful relationships. The arch of the foot is viewed as the foundational arch which sits below the diaphragm (our breathing muscle) and pelvic floor arches or hammocks. They all have a similar shape in the way they sit and in movement. These arches or hammocks move dynamically as they elevate and lower in the body to function and create support and they are a part of the structure known as the core. They each work in synergy with each other and when functioning well there is a dynamic, harmonious relationship between the arches. This also means that if one is not working well, one or more will be compromised which is why breathing, balancing and footwork is such a prominent part of good Pilates practice. To understand the core structure better read my article on ‘What are core muscles’
A long way from the feet is your head and shoulders which is the very top end of your posture and a problem area for many. Good posture begins and ends in the feet and if your weight distribution is not well balanced or if your feet are in disrepair, you may not be grounded properly in the feet which in turn can affect how you hold your upper body or vice versa. If you have poor upper body posture, it can affect how you stand right down to the foundation of your feet which is a prime reason Pilates aims to improve your postural habits and it is how exercises that focus on your foot health can improve the way you stand and hold yourself.
When we look at feet in the Pilates studio we are actually assessing the entire body and how it moves. It is the beauty of what we do as movement experts and is why Pilates is so beneficial for every body when practiced with someone who is properly trained. We understand that your feet are not only your foundation, they are intimately connected to your knees, hips, core and posture and when you work with us we know how to instruct every part of your entire system so that you move in harmony from top to toe.
What you can do at home to improve foot health
Barefoot exercises – practice these moves daily for better foot health
Get used to spending part of your day barefoot and pay attention to your feet. Are they stiff, sore, tight? Do you have control of your toes, ankles and arches or not? Notice how your feet feel when you stand on them before you perform your exercises and take note of how they feel afterwards.
- Scrunch and stretch your toes
- Try and move your toes individually and as a group (imagine playing the piano with your toes)
- Make circles with your ankles (in both directions)
- Wiggle your toes
- Write your name with your foot in cursive
- Try picking up a tea towel with your foot
- Walk barefoot in the garden, on rocks, on the sand
- Stand on a step and lift and lower the heels (calf raises)
- Have a Magnesium/epsom salt foot bath
- Self massage each foot
3 things that contribute to poor foot health
- Wearing shoes all the time (especially on natural surfaces like the garden or beach)
- Poor diet – excessive alcohol, gluten, dairy, wheat are all factors that affect inflammation and slow healing
- Standing on concrete/wood barefoot if you have pain. Wear soft, supporting slippers or thongs instead.
3 things you may not know about your feet
- The arch of the foot is associated with pelvic floor health. If your arch has dropped over time then strengthening the pelvic floor can help with improving the arch support and vice versa. It is especially common for women who have given birth to multiple children or someone with a traumatic spinal injury to experience collapsed arches. Pilates footwork can be an integral part of rehab and can help strengthen pelvic floor tone and deep core structure.
- Similarly if someone has a high foot arch, it may indicate that they have hypertonic pelvic floor. Releasing the arch of the foot can help relax the pelvic floor muscles and assist in gaining a deeper core connection.
- Foot health and postural health go hand in hand and as your feet function better, your posture is likely to improve and you will stand taller and hold yourself better.
If you have a foot issue, weak knees, sore hips or poor postural habits, Pilates can be an effective, supportive management program. Contact us today to learn how we can help ease your pain and teach you how to move better with a Discovery session and our clinical Pilates appointments.