Keep Your Feet Happy!

by Jeanne Rhodes

Did you ever think about the demands we place on our feet? We often cram them into shoes that are too tight (not to mention high heels), and ask them to walk on concrete sidewalks. We ask them to walk and run for miles, and make them jump up and down for extended periods of time or zigzag like crazy all over a tennis court. While the healthy foot is a strong, sturdy structure, the repetitive-movement demands of activities such as aerobics, tennis and basketball - not to mention concrete floors - were probably not a consideration when the human foot was first designed! That’s why we need to take the time (and spend the money) to shop for good shoes.

Is special footwear that important for exercise? Maybe not for swimming. But for most sports and activities, well-fitting shoes that will accommodate the extra demands placed on your feet are essential. In fact, a good shoe is the most important part of your outfit, so spend your money here and wear your old sweats and T-shirts for another year.

The stresses placed on your feet vary depending on the sport. Sport shoe manufacturers analyze the biomechanical demands of a given sport, and design shoes to protect your foot from the injuries associated with the movements required by that sport. For example, when you run or jog, your feet receive a force that is four or five times your body weight with every step! Running shoes are designed to give your feet extra cushioning for absorbing this shock, especially in the heel. A stiff heel counter and flared heel sole give good support and stability, and with the arch support help to prevent the foot rolling in or out. Padded heels help to protect the Achilles tendon.

Walking shoes also provide support and shock absorption, but are built to accommodate the rolling motion of your foot, rather than a pounding impact. Heel cushioning, arch support and flexible soles are important. Walking shoes should also help prevent the foot from rolling in or out.

Some aerobic activities require a repeated up-and -down motion. Aerobics shoes should have good overall support and adequate cushioning. Aerobic exercise classes often require frequent changes in direction, as do racquet sports and basketball. Shoes for all of these should have good overall support to resist twisting of the foot and ankle. Running shoes may not work for some aerobic activities that require lateral movement, as you may trip over the flared heel.

Good shoes are often expensive, so we tend to hang on to them longer than we should. The first thing to go in a sports shoe is usually its shock-absorbing ability, so the shoe may still look fine, but not be performing one of its most important functions. Aerobic and court shoes usually need to be replaced after about 50-75 hours of use, and running shoes after about 400-500 miles. When you try on new sports shoes, compare the way they feel when you walk or run in place, to the way your old ones feel.

The most common cause of foot problems are ill-fitting shoes, which interfere with the foot’s natural structure and function. There may also be back problems and/or hip and knee problems with poorly-fitting shoes or old shoes that are no longer performing properly.

Price does not determine which shoe is best for you. Many people spend a great deal of time researching which brand of shoes to buy, but do not spend adequate time evaluating whether the shoe is suited to their foot. A high-quality shoe is only worth buying if it fits! Better to buy a lesser-quality shoe that fits well, than a poorly fitting “high-quality” shoe. As one avid shopper puts it, “If the shoe fits, buy it.”

Shop for shoes in the late afternoon when your feet are at their largest. One foot is often bigger than the other; measure your feet if you’re not sure about yours. Always buy for the bigger foot. The shoes you try on should feel comfortable immediately. But don’t stop there. The most critical test is to wear your new shoes at home on carpeted floors for 4-5 hours to see if they are still comfortable - if they pass this test, then keep them. If not, return them. Don’t plan on shoes stretching with wear. The heel should fit snugly, and the instep should not gape open. The toe box should be wide enough to wiggle all your toes, and the shoe should be as wide as your forefoot. If you have a wide foot, buy a brand of shoes that comes in wider widths. New Balance is a good brand that comes in different widths.

This last point is often overlooked. Many people think it is normal to push their feet into too-narrow shoes, perhaps believing this is part of the “support” shoes should offer. But unless you have problem feet, your arches give you good support, and shoes merely support this function, not so much the foot itself. If you do have problems with a foot structure that does not allow normal movement, a podiatrist can sometimes correct the problem with shoe inserts to change the way your foot works.

If you experience pains of any kind in your feet, it is a message that something is not right. Try to find the cause of the pain as soon as possible. Don’t wait for a minor problem to develop into a major injury.

Many things can cause foot problems besides faulty shoes. Hard and/or uneven surfaces can cause foot problems for runners, walkers and aerobicizers. Faulty technique can be a culprit in any sport, as can overtraining. Extra body weight adds stress to feet. Congenital problems with foot structure, and any pain that you can’t figure out, may need the advice of a podiatrist. Once your injury is diagnosed, special exercises that add stretch and strength to muscles of your foot may be part of your therapy.

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author, Owner and Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.