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Feet and Walking

In my last post (link) I mentioned that walking is a category, and that what most people envision when asked to imagine a person walking, is a person walking on a flat, level surface, perhaps a sidewalk. Indeed, when people “go for a walk” most of the time they use a trail or a route they have mapped out that will help them achieve the 10,000 steps on their Fitbit. I went to Costa Rica this spring, and I was looking forward to bushwhacking my way through a wild, untamed jungle, but even there, the routes through the jungle are prepared, some paved, some with concrete bricks, although they are hilly and sometimes involve suspension bridges and zip lines (sadly absent in Toronto). So what is an urban person to do when it comes to getting the nutrients our feet, knees and hips crave?

If I may borrow Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement™ metaphor, if walking is good for you, and you walk every day, but your walking involves walking around the block, or around the mall, you are doing something inherently good, but you are only getting one nutrient – your feet never experience anything other than a flat and level surface. So it would be like eating kale for every meal – it’s inherently good yes, but to eat that for every meal is going to be 1. Boring and 2. Eventually lead to an outcome that is less than desirable. Perhaps you eat so much kale you have a thyroid imbalance. Or to put it more plainly, you walk on flat and level to the exclusion of anything else, and now your feet are stiff, sore and cannot handle anything other than a flat and level surface. Then you are advised to avoid anything other than flat and level in fear that you might incur a fall if you do otherwise. I have known older people to fall over the kind of mat that is put down in grocery stores for wet weather, which is about 1/8” thick.

While it is “safer” for people with stiff unyielding feet to stay on surfaces that will not surprise them, what of the rare instance when they encounter something out of the ordinary – the grocery store mat, the broken sidewalk, the curb that came out of nowhere? The time they went to the farmer’s market or antiques fair and had to walk on the grass, or went to the beach and found that it was rocky, the vacation in Italy or France where the sidewalks are made of cobblestones? There are going to be times when the surface surprises you, and your feet should be ready.

You may recall from previous posts that the feet have 26 bones (or 28 if you count the tiny sesamoids) comprising 33 joints. Wait, stop; I want that to sink in. Thirty-three joints. Thirty-three joints! Your hip has one joint, your knee has one joint, your foot has thirty-three joints. (I didn’t include shoulders there because they are complex and like feet, deserve their own mention). So what is happening when you wear shoes – what is happening even more if you wear stiff shoes (like leather dress shoes or hiking boots)? Those 33 joints are prevented from movement, sometimes the toes get to move a little in shoes, if the shoe bends at the right place.

(To test your shoes: take the shoes you wear for walking and place them on a firm surface like a table. Put one hand inside, palm down to hold the back of the shoe firm. Then take the other hand at the outside of the front of the shoe and bend the front of the shoe up towards the ceiling. Where does your shoe bend (if it bends)? If it bends behind where the toes are, the shoe is not allowing your toes to bend at the joint where they meet the foot. Is the toe part of the shoe lifted off the table, kind of like the front of a canoe? This is called toe spring, and is designed to let your foot roll in leiu of the toes bending.)

So in the case of most shoes, the joint that is free to move is outside the foot; the ankle. The ankle is a hinge joint that moves mostly up and down (called dorsiflexion and plantarflexion). If you encounter that uneven surface, and your foot cannot adapt to it, the ankle is forced to. If the surface throws you to the side, you will turn over the ankle, likely resulting in a strained tendon and injured ligaments. If the ankle gives, and your balance is compromised (proprioception), you may continue falling, and end up on the ground, with a risk of breaking a hip, wrist or rib. So in my opinion, one of the most important parts of proprioception, balance, walking and continued walking throughout a long lifetime is foot mobility.

I have some free foot mobility videos here, and on my Instagram feed here.

When walking inside – try to walk barefoot sometimes if you can. Some people never walk barefoot, so the home is a safe place to start for sensitive feet. I would suggest bare feet and not socks, as they can be slippery and the nerves that feed your brain information about the surface you’re on (sensory nerves) are in the skin and need direct contact.

When walking outside – choose alternative routes if appropriate, like walking beside the paved path in the park on the grass. Taking the hill instead of the stairs.



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