Our Feet: Happiness and Health from the Ground Up
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Published in Inside Fitness Magazine
I was in my 40’s when I first really noticed my feet. It was in a hip-hop class where the wall-to-wall mirror in the studio hid little. Keeping my center of gravity low, and determined to fit in with the dancers half my age, I tensed and released my limbs and core in tandem with the old-school, angry beats. As our stomping shook the polished plywood, I glanced at my reflection and almost stopped in my tracks: my steps were flimsy, almost timid.
I was engrossed with my feet thereafter: their placement on the ground, my weight distribution, my gait. I rolled out my plantar fascia, did toe push-ups at the sink and pressed into all corners of my feet when I felt overwhelmed at the office. Shifts began to appear in other areas of my life as my treads became a lens into how I moved through life. It blows me away that so much change was ignited from a mere glance at my feet in that sweaty studio.
Why had it taken me so long to see them?
Forgotten Foot Soldiers Our feet are one of the hardest working limbs on the human body, absorbing over a million pounds of force each day, but few body parts are as neglected as our humble trotters.
We know what to do or where to go for painful ingrown toenails, orthotics for arch support, or footwear for pronation issues. When it comes to prevention and foot health, however, we don’t fare as well.
Why should we?
If Our Feet Could Talk Exalted by Da Vinci as a masterpiece of engineering, our feet are one of the most complex structures of the human body and play a notable role in whole body health.
Symptoms of diseases or ailments, like diabetes and thyroid dysfunction, can show up on the foot long before any other body part. The 7000 nerve endings in each foot connect pressure points to critical organs in the body. Our feet are also an essential physical foundation. If there’s pain or injury in a foot, the whole structure it supports is threatened. Yet located the farthest from our line of sight and concealed in constrictive footwear, it’s easy to forget our lowly feet even exist, until they start to hurt.
Seventy-five percent of Canadians will experience foot health complications at some point in their lives. Many of us don’t seek medical help for the first signs of low-grade foot pain and continued neglect can lead to instability, compensations and inflammation farther up the body. Chronic pain, now considered a disease in its own right, affects one in four Canadians.
Physical Wellbeing: The Spring in Our Step Our feet have a biological function and contribute to cellular health. As an ecosystem that depends on regular blood and lymph circulation to thrive, our bodies need regular movement in our feet to push toxins up and out of our systems. Driving energy back up also promotes mental and physical alertness.
It’s not about more exercise or more movement per se, but getting more foot movement into our days. You can be a strong runner or an avid strength trainer and still have weak feet. Foot health is better served by incorporating foot movement seamlessly throughout our days rather than devoting an hour a day to make up for many hours deskbound.
Emotional and Mental Wellbeing: Mind, Body and Sole It’s not only early signs of disease and ailments our feet reveal, but our personal stories as well.
Foot pain and other foot problems can be traced back to emotional and psychological tension embedded in the muscles of our feet and legs. Since our bodies can hold on to trauma, the feet are also reservoirs of mental and emotional pain. According to bodywork therapy, our movement patterns and foot shape can be formed early in life as an instinctive response to how supported we feel in our immediate environment. Many of us live with issues of safety and move in the world walking on egg shells.
Chronic anxiety and stress, hallmarks of modern life can also undermine our foot health. In our current rush culture, our nervous system may be locking our feet in a hypertonic state as we haul them around in a headlong momentum.
A Bottom-Up Approach to Health and Happiness If thoughts and emotions can affect foot health, and if our brain, through the nervous system, impacts the biomechanics of our lower limbs, can we not in turn physically integrate more harmony into our lives through our feet?
Movement experts would agree. The closer our feet mirror each other, the more physical balance we create, which can generate more equanimity and even facilitate emotional and mental healing: we relax tension, promote circulation, loosen up the energetic stuck points and free up emotions trapped in the web of impacted connective and fascial tissues in our feet. We become more physically and mentally responsive as we uncover fresh sources of energy and vitality. We also cultivate a sense of rootedness and safety which help us navigate our days with greater poise.
So how can we create mobility, strength and alignment in our feet? More importantly, how can we develop our foot fitness to make us healthier and happier?
1: Exercise Your Feet The anatomy of our feet suggests they have as much potential dexterity as the hands, but it’s hard to imagine binding our hands the same way we do our feet. Modern culture and safety concerns have meant stuffing our feet into restrictive shoes and walking on unnaturally flat surfaces. As a result, a good deal of desensitization and loss of intrinsic muscle function have occurred in our feet and we don’t even realize it.
Regular strength and mobility work for the feet can repair this process. Stretch and tone the muscles and ligaments in your feet: spread and point the toes, flex the feet, roll a ball underfoot and do toe push-ups. Picking up a small towel or marbles with our feet builds arch strength. Practicing lifting each toe individually and separately from the rest of the foot (yes, this can be done!) builds dexterity and articulation in the joints and muscles.
Most of us have our work cut out for us here but you will be surprised at how quickly our feet can respond!
2: Touch Your Feet Regular massage and skincare for the feet calm the central nervous system. Keep your feet well-exfoliated and moisturized. Massage them, not just with your hands, but by shifting your weight around and pressing into all the corners of your feet on the floor. Routine care also wakes up the feet as they become more sensitive to the surface supporting them.
3: Give your Shoes the Boot
Our feet are not only emotional gateways, but they are also conduits of energy between our bodies and nature. As the first point of contact with the ground, walking barefoot outside (if it’s safe to do so) can draw the earth’s restorative powers into our bodies. Low-frequency energetic fields below the earth’s surface conduct subtle electrical charges in our bodies that are purported to support immune health and reduce inflammation. Even though the benefits of earthing or grounding are under-researched, at an intuitive level it’s hard to deny the positive effects of walking barefoot on cool grass or soft sands.
4: Take the Road Less Travelled
In the past, people typically walked barefoot and on uneven terrain, requiring the feet to constantly make micro-adjustments. These shifts were accompanied by small movements in the pelvis and spine promoting elasticity throughout the entire body. Today, in comparison, we are much more sedentary and walk on smooth pavements. The repetitive motions and reduced movement have restricted the range of motion of the small bones and ligaments in the feet, ankles and lower back, clumping them together.
Gently create more space, pliability and articulation within and between these body parts by getting off the beaten path: go on a hike, walk barefoot on grass, sand or any surface that has a varied texture and surface. These are also terrific mindfulness activities since they promote more focus and continuous adjustments with each step.
5:Take Baby Steps
Introduce more well-aligned movement to your feet and incorporate new foot care practices gradually and with care. If you’ve been diagnosed with a foot health problem or experience stubborn foot pain, check with your doctor or foot specialist first. Transition to minimalist footwear slowly. Remember, we are adjusting the effects of many years of tension, constraints and immobility, so taking your time and being attentive to how your feet and body respond will help avoid injury.
6: Search Your Sole
In alternative forms of medicine, our tailbone, legs and feet represent our instinctual sense of survival. When making observations about your feet and their movement, it wouldn’t hurt to do some soul searching. Just like body language suggests our states of mind and emotions, reflect on what the movement patterns of your feet might be revealing. Do you move with trepidation? A hopeless shuffle? What can you change in your life to bring back the bounce in your step? Working on foot fitness is an opportunity to identify areas in your life that need nurturing and attention and to adjust patterns that may be limiting more authentic self-expression.
Foot health is so much more than pedicures, orthotics or swearing off heels. Our feet are our wheels, stabilizers and structural foundations. They are a portal to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The ancients believed the feet to be holy, and some traditional cultures recognize their spiritual significance. They all revere the feet…. maybe it’s time we did too.