Don’t be such a (positive) heel! The long-ranging consequences of a positive-heeled shoe
The clinical definition of a positive-heeled shoe is one that raises the heel above the level of the ground. Basically this means that almost all of the shoes out there on the market- and on our feet -are positive heeled – even most althetic footwear. A positive heel changes the way we carry our body weight (specifically, where we hold our center of mass – the pelvis, when standing) shifting it to the front of the body and over the delicate structures of the forefoot instead of the more robust bones in the heel. This excessive loading of the forefoot (together with too-tight toe boxes) is responsible for many of the most common foot pathologies: hallux valgus, bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis, etc. Even a low-heeled shoe will cause the body to put into action a series of compensations from the knees on up and along the length of the spine in order not to fall forward from the positive heel underfoot:
- The foot itself will compensate by deforming at the toes, which sets off a series of chain reactions leading to skeletal deformations up above and changes to the natural curves of the spine. All of these compensating mechanisms can lead intervertebral disc compression and a shortening/weakening of our posterior leg muscles (calf, hamstrings & glutes), which are rendered incapable of generating force and participating in the basic movements needed to walk in a way that doesn’t degenerate joints and spine.
The situation gets even more disquieting when we look at the more subtle effects of positive heels – for example, the effects on the health of the muscles of your pelvic floor and their ability to do their job (we’ll save this discussion for another blog though…)
The other side of the coin however, is the fact that our bodies respond to that which we ask of them. In the same way we’ve ‘trained’ our feet into the pitiful state we find them in now is due to the fact that we have made conscious choices about our footwear and postural habits. Which means that we are free to make other, wiser choices – ones that are much more aligned with the goals almost all of us have for living mobile, pain-free lives.
With a little bit of curiosity and patience, we can re-discover – and recover – the innate mobility, strength and function of the foot. By awakening dormant muscles and mobilizing rigid joints, we can make leaps and bounds of progress in improving our current situation and any present pathologies. (see our last blog post for an awesome intrinisic foot muscle stretch!) There are two main (and fairly simple) things we can do immediately to affect change in the health and wellbeing of our feet (and therefore our entire bodies!):
1) we can change what kind of shoes we choose to put on our feet – coming down from a positive heel toward a neutral heel (in a gradual way, especially if we have been wearing a positive heel for a long time) and choosing shoes with toeboxes wide enough to actually fit our toes into and soles that actually allow the foot to do its job of ‘adaptor’. Shoes maybe eventually even like these comfy & spiffy minimalist marvels:
2) changing and aligning our stance by re-learning a sounder, safer way of holding our bodies as we stand (and eventually move). This will involve re-positioning our body parts relative to each other in order to take into account the natural forces we contend and live with on a constant basis (gravity!). Try this simple exercise in mindful standing at home, barefoot and in front of a mirror (you might want to use a yoga strap or a string with a stone/weight tied to the end to create a homemade plumb line to help you find a vertical leg):
Check to see where you are carrying your body weight and especially notice where you carry your pelvis (your center of mass when standing). Often our pelvis will be pushed out in front of our heels, loading the forefoot and toes – and the knee joint. Now try to shift the pelvis back over your heels – if you look in a mirror from your side, you should be able to trace a plumb line down from the center of your hip through the center of the knee and ankle (if you continue the line upwards, it will bissect the center of the shoulder and ear, but again, that’s another blog post…) Try it now without the strap/plumb line and see how it feels. You might feel awkward in this (new) more aligned position. You may even feel that you are sticking your butt out. Yes, hello glutes (saving this for yet another blog post). The opportunities to put our new learning and optimal alignment into effect are endless: we can practice standing in alignment with a vertical leg while we wait in line at the post office or the supermarket or in line for security at the airport…your feet and your knees will thank you as returning to a vertical leg takes the overload off of their more delicate structures and distributes it more evenly throughout the entire leg. Eventually you will feel this understanding work its way into your everyday movements – especially in terms of the way you walk – where you will lessen the load on your precious joints and begin involving more of your (over 600!) muscles as you move throughout the day. All of this new body awareness means that even a walk to the post office can become a super-healthy, body-nourishing workout!
Stay tuned for our next post that will teach you how to free your feet! Remember you can follow us on Facebook too!