Are you worried about balance, posture, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis, or tendonitis in your Achilles tendon? If you're worried about any foot issues, there's a simple step you can take to help lower your risk of suffering from these issues. You don't need fancy equipment or a gym. You literally just need to take steps in the right footwear. But you might be surprised about the type of footwear I'm talking about.
Some of you might not like this footwear if the floors in your house are cold. According to research conducted at Ithaca College's School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, you can significantly strengthen your feet and reduce your risk of injury by walking around barefoot.
Your feet are full of small muscles that constantly stabilize you and give the rest of your body information that helps you stay steady and balanced. These little muscles send information to your brain that your brain can then relay to your larger muscles, such as your leg muscles, so they know how to adjust to your movements.
When you wear shoes, however, that feedback loop doesn't work as effectively. Since your small muscles aren't in tune with exactly what's going on, you may overcompensate with your larger muscles, which could result in overuse injuries. If your muscles are no longer able to absorb shocks effectively, in part because they aren't sure where they're coming from, your bones, tendons, and ligaments have to step in and help.
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While shoes are certainly important for providing support (and being socially appropriate!), your whole body will benefit if you take advantage of opportunities to go barefoot. This gives your body the feedback it needs to make adjustments. Physical activities that you can do barefoot such as Pilates, yoga, martial arts, and dance can be especially helpful. Researcher Patrick McKeon explains, "Anything that has to deal with changing postures and using the forces that derive from the interaction with the body and the ground [is great for developing foot core strength]."
McKeon also recommends an exercise of squeezing the ball of the foot back toward the heel. This is a small motion that doesn't involve curling the toes, which might be your first instinct. McKeon suggests that you have an athletic trainer or physical therapist help you get the hang of this move initially. But once you do, you can do it anywhere. This move can really help provide relief for patients with ankle injuries, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis.
If you want to strengthen your feet, McKeon believes that doing so really can be as simple as kicking off your shoes. "The more people can go barefoot, such as at home or the office, is a really good thing," he says. Give it a try to help improve your balance and posture.
Make sure you're careful if any of the floors in your house are slick, and truly go barefoot rather than walking around in socks. You don't want to slip and risk a different injury while trying to avoid shin splints! In the winter, you may need to wear socks. So buy the ones that have rubber grips on the bottom. They aren't as good as going barefoot. But they're better than slippers or shoes for your feet. And your feet won't be cold.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD