Your feet, your foundation

Your feet are, quite literally, your foundation. They are active and complex networks of bones, joints, tissues, muscles, and nerve endings that all work together to help coordinate motion in the rest of your body.

Remember that old song, "Dem Bones" – the head bone connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected to the back bone, and the same pattern all the way down to the foot bone? Well, your feet are actually more than one big ol' foot bone: each foot is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles, and more than 150 ligaments.

When something is out of balance in that complex network, the impact can be felt in the foot bones, the ankle bone, the knee bone, and all the way up to the "head bone." The root of some imbalances (and the aches and pains that come along with them) can be found in the way we move our weight as we walk.

You see, the action of walking is complex, but it is made up of two essential actions – supination and pronation. Supination is the action of turning your foot so that the outer edge bears your body's weight. Pronation is the opposite – it's the action of turning your foot so the inner edge bears the weight. To be in a properly balanced posture for walking, your foot should bear your weight equally, rolling naturally from supination to pronation, supination to pronation.

Supination: Take a look at the bottom of your shoe. If the outside edge of your shoe is more worn down than the inside edge, you may be a supinator. Walking with more of your weight on the outside of your foot can mean that the arches of your foot remain rigid and high. The inside ball of your foot doesn't have a chance to come into proper contact with the ground. Watch out for calluses on the outside of your little toe, taut and sore arches, knee and back pain, and a tendency toward ankle sprains and ligament damage.

Pronation: Are you an over-pronator? Check the bottom of your shoe for the tell-tale sign of extra wear on the inner sole. Or try standing on a piece of paper with wet feet. If the outline you leave behind shows most of your foot, you may have the lower arch that is sometimes the result of putting more weight on the inside of your feet as you walk. Over-pronation tightens the calf muscles, puts stress on the knees, and can lead to hip and back problems. Fallen arches and flat feet may also develop.

If you favour one part of your foot over the other, you're walking toward some aches and pains. Get balanced and get to know your whole, glorious foot! Try these tips for better foot form:

  • Choose shoes that suit your specific feet. Everyone's feet are unique – high arches, low arches, wide, narrow, big, little – and no shoe is perfect for everyone. If you're a runner, choose running shoes that match your gait and running style. If you're a foot fashionista, try to limit your high-heel time to special occasions. And you simply mustn't squeeze your feet into shoes that are too tight. They're not going to magically fit you, and you'll just end up with corns, calluses, and bunions.
  • Fashionable or functional? It's unfortunately true that most orthopedic shoes are a bit on the, well, clunky side. That's because they're usually built for support, not for fashion. Thankfully, more and more people are demanding hot shoes for sore feet, and the market is responding with options for inserts or well-built, supportive shoes that are actually somewhat chic.
  • Set your feet free. How far apart can you spread your toes? Can you pick up a marble with your toes? Strong, flexible feet can form a solid base for better standing and walking postures. Fitness and flexibility should extend all the way down to your feet, and not many workouts give much attention to the feet. Yoga is a great practice for foot strength and flexibility. Try these moves, some inspired by yoga's balanced approach to the feet:
    • Toes: Sit in a chair that lets your feet touch the ground. Keeping the balls and heels of your feet down, raise your toes off of the ground just slightly. Slowly and deliberately, spread your toes apart as far as they'll comfortably spread. Then, slowly and deliberately, place one toe back down to the ground at a time, starting with the little toe and working your way in toward the big toe. Try to maintain the distance between the toes that you created as you stretched them. Do this toe stretch whenever you get a chance. It opens the whole plain of your foot and encourages a more balanced distribution of weight as you stand or walk.
    • Tops of your feet: This pose is borrowed from yoga, and it's a great way to stretch the tops of the feet and can help to strengthen the arches – a plus for those prone to pronation. Kneel on the floor and sit back onto your feet, with the tops of each foot pressed into the floor. Should this hurt your knees, wedge a blanket under your bottom or under your knees. If you're able, you can spread your feet apart enough to sit down between them. If not, no worries. Just hang out here, sitting with your chest lifted and back tall. Stay in the pose for about 30 seconds to a minute.
    • Arches: As in the previous pose, kneel onto the floor and sit back on your feet, but this time, sit on your heels rather than on the tops of your feet. Your toes will be bearing much of your weight, but it will be in the arches of your feet that you will feel much of this stretch.
    • Ankles: Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Pull your feet in toward your pelvis and bring the soles of your feet together. It doesn't matter how close you get to your pelvis – there's no need to overstretch. Lift your right foot up over the left knee and interlace your fingers with your toes (it's like you're holding hands with your own foot!). Use your hand to rotate your ankle in small circles, switching direction when you wish. Switch to the other side and repeat.

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