Our poor feet just don’t get what they need to be healthy and happy—and you know who pays the price, don’t you? According to Katy Bowman, MS, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, California, modern life is hard on our feet. An astonishing 25% of the body’s bones are in the feet, says Bowman, noting “every one of them has a job to do.” We actually weaken our feet by wearing shoes—encasing them this way diminishes their natural strength and abilities. Walking on artificially flat surfaces does further damage, since the foot is deprived of the natural workout it is supposed to get from varying natural terrain. The result of all this is that we’re no longer really using our feet, says Bowman. By midlife, most of us have lost not only muscle strength but also the fine motor skills that our feet need to properly support us. We end up using the ankle muscles instead and, in a vicious cycle, this further weakens foot muscles.

Test your feet

Here is an easy way to test your foot muscle strength: Try to raise your big toe, by itself, and then the second toe with it. It sounds easier than it is—few are able to do more than lift the big toe slightly off the floor. When the foot is being used properly, however, all toes should retain their ability to move independently from the other four.

Walk This Way

Foot problems start in your feet—your posture and style of walking play a role, too. You may never have noticed it but, if you are like many folks, you’re likely walking with your feet slightly turned out, duck-fashion. This interferes with how the muscles and ligaments in the feet, knees and hips are supposed to work. Your feet should point straight ahead in the direction you are walking.

Try this: Find straight lines on the floor (a tile joint or wood slat works well), and line up the outside edges of both feet. Keeping that alignment, walk forward. As you try to adapt to this new gait, you may initially feel like you’ve become pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, but if you stay with it you’ll soon notice how your hips are engaged and rotating smoothly—it all feels quite facile and natural.

Straighten Up

When standing and walking, many people tuck their pelvises under, creating weak abdominal muscles—wearing elevated heels (men’s shoes, too) further amplifies this effect. Coupled with the turned-out duck-walking style, this posture puts too much weight on the front of the feet, which is what creates bunions. Instead, the weight should be back over the heels and spread among four contact points.

Try this: Picture your foot as a rectangle with four corners. Now consciously distribute your weight equally to the inside of the heel…the outside of the heel…the ball of the foot…and just below the pinkie toe. And here’s an exercise that can help you identify a forward-thrusting pelvis and poor weight placement: Stand barefoot and move your hips back until they are over your ankles—when you do this correctly, you should be able to lift all 10 toes off the floor. Do this near a chair or wall in case you need support. Once you learn what this centered position feels like, try to achieve it regularly.

What to Wear?

Bowman advises walking shoeless often, and when footwear is required urges selection of heels that are as flat as possible. She said that an elevation of even an inch or so puts too much weight on the ball of the foot—it’s like walking downhill. In fact, she recommends shoes that draw your weight back, onto the heels, such as those made by Earth, Inc. (www.earthfootwear.com). Arch supports may be helpful for people with very high or very low arches, but Bowman cautions that regular use weakens foot muscles.

Bowman is ardently against flip-flops—she says they force the wearer to scrunch the toes, which can cause hammer toes and also makes proper weight distribution (those four proper contact points) impossible. Neither does she favor the new types of workout shoes that rock the foot and purposely throw off the body’s balance to make leg muscles work harder—including “FitFlops” and MBTs. She says the shape of the sole creates an unnatural gait pattern that can harm the feet, knees, hips and spine.

You can probably imagine how she feels about high heels. For dress-up occasions, she suggests women bring heels to put on at the last minute. If you wear them regularly, she advises visiting the chiropractor or a naturopathic physician to get some special attention for your feet and sacroiliac joints, which will help to minimize the damage.

Easy Steps to Feel-Good Feet

The real path to pain-free feet, however, involves giving them tender, loving care in the form of regular exercises that stretch, balance and strengthen their muscles, tendons and ligaments. Start by simply spreading and lifting your toes as often as possible. Other easy exercises…

  • Toe lifts. While standing, lift your big toe alone, followed in succession by each of the remaining toes…repeat in the opposite direction, big toe last.
  • Toe tucks. Stand with one foot flat on the floor and the other pointed slightly behind you, toes tucked under so that the tops of your toes are resting on the floor. This stretches your upper foot. (This won’t be easy or comfortable at first.)
  • Arch support. Stand erect, shift your weight to the outside of one of your soles, and lift that foot’s ball and toes…slowly lower the ball of the foot without letting your arch collapse, and then relax your toes back to the ground.
  • Toe spacers. Available at nail-care salons, online and in many stores, they fit between your toes and spread them. They may feel odd at first, but then are soothing. If you use them fairly often, such as while reading or watching TV, your toes will eventually relearn their normal spreading motion.
  • Barefoot walking. Do this as often as you can.

And here are some fast fixes for feet that hurt:

  • For instant relief of aching feet, run your foot repeatedly over a tennis ball—start while you are in a seated position and then slowly stand, increasing the weight on your foot.
  • Elevating tired, sore feet feels great, as does wrapping them in a warm, wet towel.
  • A gentle foot massage or a session with a well-trained reflexologist does wonders for the heart and sole.