Have You Got (Un)Happy Feet?


Women's Health |

By Mary Bradley; Photography by Unsplash

Those aches and pains in your back, legs and shoulders could all have a surprising common cause.

When last did you pay some attention to your feet? No, not how overdue they are for a pedi… When last did you think about training your feet or using them with proper form? Say what? You may not give them much thought, but feet are the frontline buffers for absorbing your bodyweight when you stand – a force that increases exponentially when you walk, run, jump or stop fast in your tracks. Even the average couch potato takes around 3 000 steps per day, according to Cape Town podiatrist Sean Pincus. If you’re active, and clocking the recommended 10 000+, your feet are doing the kind of thankless labour usually reserved for moms with teenagers!

Sole providers

Your feet are engineering masterpieces, containing almost 25 percent of the bones in your body, along with a complex network of nerves, tendons, ligaments and muscles, explains biokineticist and running technique coach Jannie van Wyk. The double arch in each foot forms a dome that gives it both shape and rigidity and enables you to propel off the ground with force. What’s more, you’ll be surprised how connected your feet are to the rest of your body – their well-being can influence your muscles, joints and even your circulatory system!

Van Wyk explains that a major line of fascia – a type of connective tissue that covers muscles like plastic wrap around a pack of chops – starts at the sole of your feet and runs up the back of your legs, torso, neck and skull, attaching to your forehead. You can do all the hamstring stretches you want, but, if the fascia in your feet remains tight, flexibility in your legs and elsewhere will remain limited.

The foot of all evil

You know in Cinderella, when the stepsisters try to squeeze their feet into her dainty slipper? The sad truth is, that’s most of us every day (minus the ugliness of course). From sole-gripping sandals and toe-squeezing pumps to torturous stilettos, we rarely allow our feet the freedom to function as nature intended. When last did you march barefoot through the office? Ja… We wouldn’t do it either, but you get the picture. The result can be impeded movement, lack of flexibility and pain in other parts of your body, particularly your knees, lower back, hips and legs. Can’t touch your toes? That tightness you feel in your hamstrings could be linked to your feet!

What’s more, even when you do exercise, you’re probably only working some of the muscles in your feet. There are two types, explains Cape Town-based
foot and ankle surgeon Dr Mike Bartman. Intrinsic muscles are located entirely within the foot, while extrinsic ones also attach to other body parts like your calf.

Standard exercise routines often work the extrinsic foot muscles, but the intrinsic muscles tend to be neglected. If they remain neglected, that can hamper blood circulation and proprioception – maintaining balance and injury-free movement.

Toega mats at the ready

In order to get those forgotten tootsies into shape and working like they should, Van Wyk walks his patients through barefoot exercises he calls “toega”. The goal? To get the big toe functioning separately from the rest of your toes – something that rarely happens in those snug- fitting shoes you like to wear most days.

Try it – standing barefoot on a mat, press your big toe into the mat forcefully, while lifting your other toes off the floor. Next, do the opposite – press your smaller toes down while lifting the big toe skyward. Sounds easy, but if you’re like many people, all five toes will want to move in unison.

Other moves involve balancing exercises, curling your toes and rolling the soles of your feet over a small ball to massage the fascia – this last one will likely be painful at first, but as the pain eases, you know your fascia is loosening up.

By working the muscles and soft tissue in your feet, you simultaneously activate muscles, ligaments and other tissue in your leg and above. This can help improve your posture and balance, the alignment of your kneecaps, shins, thighs and hips, plus improve circulation. How’s that for a multitasking workout? #Footloose

Want beautiful feet this summer? Here’s how to pamper your tootsies… all you need is 15-minutes.

READ MORE ON: Health Health Advice

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