“I hardly use my toes, why should I strengthen them?” stated the dimwitted big-biceped gym rat. It may seem insignificant but the inability to control the stability of the foot and toes has paramount implications on the entire body. As you step down your foot is the first part of your anatomy that has to overcome all ground forces. Depending on how your foot falls it will negatively or positively affect the integrity of your knee joints, lumbopelvic hip stability and the rest of the translated forces up the kinetic chain. Most of us wear shoes all day long and barely spend anytime barefoot. I fear to say that many people spend no time barefoot except for when they are sleeping. Just to be clear, when I say “barefoot” I mean just that: naked feet sans shoes, slippers, and socks. Shoes are ruining our feet and additionally causing lots of unmitigated knee, hip and lower back pain. Most footwear quietly over time wreaks havoc on our anatomy. The foot coffins we don, although maybe sexy, have been shown to cause:
- Bunions, corns, and blisters
- Fallen arches
- Hammer toes
- Ingrown toenails
- Increased chances of ankle sprains
- Foot disfigurement
- Athlete’s Foot (bacterial and fungal infections)
- Hallux valgus (inward turning of big toe)
- Shortens and weakens the Achilles tendon and calf musculature
- Plantar fasciitis
Shoes provide us with a form of self-imposed neurological and muscular blindness. They prevent us from feeling the ground and using the muscles in our feet correctly. A shoe works in a similar way to a cast. It protects us from the environment and holds the architecture of the foot rigid yet our feet crave freedom. Shod individuals have blindfolded and bound their own feet in order to protect against the elements. If the foot was a person, it would scream “torture” (AKA: enhanced stressed positions). Research shows going barefoot improves alignment, strengthens the foot, increases flexibility and promotes better balance and proprioception.
Did you ever see Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”? His character lost the ability to use most of his body except, you guessed it, his left foot. Anyway, with only one limb working, he became very adept at using his foot to paint, eat, write etc. Many babies and toddlers have this same ability. The main reason we lose our natural lower limb dexterity because we stop using our feet and toes and begin wearing shoes. In congenitally barefoot societies the breadth of foot strength and dexterity is simply amazing by our standards.
Let’s see how much control you have over your toes and feet. Try these 4 things to improve your foot’s dexterity, strength, and balance.
1. Stand up and push your big toe down into the ground (but don’t bend/flex it) and lift your other toes up while keeping your heel on the ground (make sure not to roll the ankle in or out).
2. How about lifting your big toe up and pressing your other four toes down (but don’t bend them) while keeping your heels grounded?
3. Try standing on one foot, not shifting all your weight to that side, and balance on 3 points: big toe, heel, and Ball under the small toe. Hold for 30 seconds.
4. Janda’s Short foot – a great micro-movement that strengthens your 1st MTP and arch:
The 1st MTP (big toe) supports the weight of your body while walking and running. It also serves as the push off point during locomotion. However, most running sneakers have a narrow toe box that is flexed upwards (industry standard is 15 degrees…high heels are much more), putting all your toes in extension and preventing the 1st MTP from properly flexing down and propelling you off into the next step. During the landing phase of walking/running, the big toe helps raise the arch (medial longitudinal arch) and thus locks the bones of the foot causing temporary stiffness which allows for propulsion. In shoes the 1st MTP is immobilized like a fish in a tin can preventing the arch mechanics from properly working. Most congenitally shod individuals have weakened toes and potentially inhibited foot muscles from all that shoe wearing. We develop compensations from these weak links and our knees, hips and back suffer for it. As often as you can kick off your shoes and walk around (uneven surfaces are great) and practice the above exercises to regain some of your innate foot dexterity and balance.
1. Influence of Footwear on Flat foot
2. Rossi, William A. “Why Shoes Make” Normal” Gait Impossible.” Part 1 (1999): 50-61.
3. Janda Foot Exercise
4. Walking Barefoot Decreases Knee Pain
5. Lumbo-Pelvic Hip Stabilization and Foot Strength From Dr. Emily Splichal
6. Shoe Design Manipulates Human Movement