Some Foot Fundamentals…
Given the (literally!) fundamental role our feet play in our overall health and correct physiological function, it is unsettling how badly we treat our poor feet. Right from the get-go as babies, our feet are more often than not bound up in rigid shoes that already begin to restrict the movement of the foot’s 33 joints and 26 bones (numerically almost a quarter of our total skeleton!), to say nothing of the 100 plus muscles, ligaments and tendons in each foot. Our shoes limit almost all of the subtle and dynamic movements and essential functions that our feet were ‘designed’ to execute – and then we complain or marvel when they become such a source of pain and pathology. In fact, many diseases and dysfunctions are correlated to malalignment of the foot – and not just strictly podological pathologies (Morton’s neuromas, bunions, hammer toes, etc) but also other dysfunctions that seem less obviously foot-related (osteoarthritis of the knee & hip ,pelvic floor dysfunction, and low back pain to name a few).
Our poor feet often point in opposite directions (think duck feet) thanks to the way we move and the shoes we have worn throughout our lives – as a result, our feet tend to move almost exclusively from the ankle joint rather than from the 33 joints within the foot itself. This means that the foot’s structural complexity and fine-motor skill ability is almost completely turned off and underused. The motor nerves (which receive messages from the brain to move the foot) and the sensory nerves (which send important information about the terrain underfoot back to the brain) located in our feet are ‘blinded’ and rendered non-communicant with the rest of the central nervous system. A disquieting fact that doesn’t get discussed much among the shoe-wearing (or shoe-selling) community.
Houston, we’ve got a problem…
Here’s a quick test to assess the state of your own feet in this moment: stand up and try to move one of your big toes – lifting it up off the floor and leaving the rest of your toes down. Was your big toe able to complete this basic request? Now try lifting both big toes at the same time. The movement of your big toe separately from the rest of your toes requires an important neurological connection between your foot and your brain – a gross versus fine motor skill that many of us have lost (temporarily, don’t fret!). A similar analogy would be not being able to move your thumb independently from the rest of your fingers and hand…yikes.
“Once you have spent two years trying to move one toe, everything is in proportion”
It can be unnerving (pun intended;)) to discover how ‘disconnected’ we can feel when we can’t move our big toe (or our second or third toes for that matter…), but discovering these disconnects can also be an extraordinary opportunity to reconnect with vital parts of our body. The more our feet ‘awaken’, the more we will be able to appreciate and benefit from their immense complexity and functionality.
The truth is that the humble foot, with all of its small bones, joints and muscles (both intrinsic – ones whose attachments remain in the foot – and extrinsic – muscles with one attachment in the foot and the other on the leg) is a marvel of nature. Its complexity permits a mobility that, when working correctly, can protect our backs (and hence the nervous system) allowing for the adaptation of the foot rather than the spine to the terrain we walk upon. When we step on a rock – or a piece of glass – our foot should be able to respond in a plasmic way to what it finds/feels ‘underfoot’, thereby avoiding jarring movements in the pelvis and along spine (host to our central nervous system) as compensation. Inside its shoe, the foot cannot execute this critical function and as a result we often suffer from back tension and pain as the spine compensates for the foot’s inability to respond appropriately to the ground beneath us.
To wake up these sleepy and stiff intrinsic muscles in the foot – especially the forefoot – try out this stretch tonight when you get home and take off your shoes. Make sure you are standing on a relatively soft surface (a yoga mat or rug or towel) and have a chair nearby for balance…
Top of the Foot Stretch
Standing with your feet hip distance apart, take a step backwards with your left foot, resting the toes and the top of the foot on the mat/rug/towel behind you. Try to keep the ankle pointing up towards the ceiling instead of falling out to protect the ankle from excessive rotation – and to keep the load on the forefoot, where we want to feel the stretch. If you find that your toes start to cramp, you can bend your knee or bring the stretching foot closer to the other. Cramps are a sign that you have started to awaken your stiff forefoot – and a sign that you should be doing this exercise more often (start out with a couple of times a day and work up from there…).
If you find that balance is an issue, or that your feet are super sore and crampy, you can do this from a seated position too:
Seated Top of the Foot Stretch
Keep coming back to this stretch throughout your day and over time you will find your feet start to respond with more mobility in and around the toes – and you may even start to feel and added lift and spring to your step…
Stay tuned for our next blog installments on the fantastic foot– with lots more ideas on how to treat them right and start introducing some corrective exercises to bring them back into alignment! Remember you can follow us on Facebook too!