Excerpt from “Head to Toe 3”

Welcome to your body's first point of contact with the earth, and this book’s final destination. These two structures are your bases of support that bear your full bodyweight upright as you stand and move. Take a moment to wiggle your toes, perhaps even take your shoes and socks off if you can.

This chapter explores your feet, the furthest pillar from your brain and cornerstones of your vertical body.

Imagine the warm sand under your feet as you walk along a beach, how the tide breaks onto your ankles and cools your body. Your steps now feel heavier underwater. The sharp edges of a shell trigger you to sprint away, unsure whether that was a rock or the head of a slumbered sea monster. 

Everything shifts underneath. The shore becomes a steep upward slope. Gravity pulls down, then you fall back until an impulse changes your base of support and your abdominal muscles clench to lean forward.

Your feet connect your body to the ground as you navigate about this world. They absorb the wide range of physical shocks experienced daily, yet get little attention in the popular strength and longevity discourse.

Think about the workload you put them through all day long.

Your feet send constant feedback to your brain about your position relative to the ground. The pressure sensors in your skin send the signal through ascending nerve wires. Your brain then analyses the message and induces an appropriate postural tone based on the information. This communication happens whenever there is pressure on your feet, upright or in motion ever since your very first steps.

Your weight loads the 26 bones of your feet every step, while over a hundred tissues ranging from muscles to tendons and ligaments hold the structure together upon impact. 

Your arches along the inner edges are your primary shock absorbers, an anatomical synergy of several tendons of the foot along with the lower leg attached to the heel and bones of the mid-foot. The structure collapses when the tendons lose their tone under your weight. This condition also known as flat feet has a wide range of causes, from bad footwear to injured muscles or bones, inflammation, and neurological problems.

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Fallen arches are problematic because they stress every joint above when you move and stand, a the unabsorbed shock travels upward from the ankle to the neck. They distort the signal sent to your brain about your position in space relative to the ground. The impact hits on a physical and neurological level: You lose the integrity of your vertical posture along with spatial awareness and balance.  

Your feet tell the story of your stand against gravity. Are your foundations resilient or do they crumble under pressure? A sturdy first point of contact with the ground sets the tone for a stable, efficient body. The next sections will show you how to assess and strengthen the twelfth pillar.

Everybody's feet leave an imprint against the ground. Look the trail left behind as you walk on the beach, or your hollowed insoles after a few months of use. Your bodyweight shift onto your feet then disperses sand or wears out your shoes.

These imprints show your relationship with gravity. They are vital to assess the state of your arches, whether your foundations resist your bodyweight when you stand and move. You will struggle to fix any issues above if this first point of contact with the earth fails to pull its part.

This section presents three methods to learn about your lowest pillar; a visual test, a shoe assessment, and a machine called a podoscope.The chapter ends with strategies to strengthen your arches. What do you feet have to say about your body?

Visual Test

Look at people's feet when they walk in front of you. You can often see their arches collapse every time the other lifts off the ground. The structure's inability to withstand their bodyweight is apparent.

This Visual Test requires you to stand in front of a partner or your phone with the video camera recording. Lift one foot off the ground for 3 seconds, then put it back down, repeat with the other. Ask your partner if your arches collapsed, or play the video you recorded. Some people fail both, others one side only. Few pass the test on both feet.

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Shoe Test

Take your shoes off. Do you notice any areas that have more wear than the others? Perhaps the inner edge only, or the heel like one of my students. These pressure patterns expose an uneven distribution onto your feet. Find an older pair and look for similar marks.

Podoscope 

The podoscope is a device that produces an imprint of somebody's weight distribution, similar to a scale except with lights and a mirror. You stand on a plexiglass platform, and the lighting highlights the areas wher your body’s pressure meets the surface. 

An ideal imprint shows smooth lighting on every toe and forefoot, a thick band along the outer edges where the arches are, then all over the rounded heel in the back.

Every imprint comes with a story. The pictures below  presents some of the many cases I come across in my Montreal practice, from ideal arches to flat feet, disconnected or imbalanced left and right. The first set on the top left shows an ideal structure.

Click on the images below to scroll through the slideshow.


Now, here are three strategies to strengthen your feet pillar:

1- Spend time barefoot

You lose what you never use, and the modern world leaves little time to be barefoot. Think about how often you cover your feet with socks and shoes. This new reality underwhelms the complex sensorial circuitry and muscles of the pillar.

Keep your feet active and free them from their footwear prison. Feel the grass and the sand as you take a nice walk, and make sure to air them out after a long day with shoes.

2- Mind your shoes

Your choice of footwear has a real impact on the state of your arches. Many of my students who wear high heels and rigid dress shoes have some lower limb issue, from plantar fasciitis to reduced ankle mobility. These problems often radiate to the knees and above.

Take your insoles out of your shoes. Do they have an elevated inner edge, otherwise known as artificial arches? These structures have a similar impact on your feet's muscles than the chair does to your hip extensors. They replace and weaken the pillar over time.

Be mindful of your footwear, as they may create or exacerbate a problem. Favor soft, flat shoes with enough space for your feet to breathe.

3- Feet Exercises

Stimulate your feet with exercise, the same as any other muscle in your body. Regular work will mitigate the negative impact of problematic footwear if you are diligent. All you need is a few minutes at the end of your day. Towel crunches are simple, for instance: Put a towel on the floor and crunch it with your toes for three seconds. Do 4 sets of 4-6 reps.

The Montreal creator of the Postural Recalibration Method Annette Verpillot taught me this next exercise to rebuild the arches. Place your big toes at both ends of an elastic ring, feet slightly wider than your hips as to create some tension. Now, spread the elastic with your big toes three times, then press it down,  and lift all the other toes together three times. Repeat this cycle two to three times every day to stimulate your arches.


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References

Basmajian, J. V., & Stecko, G. (1963). The Role of Muscles in Arch Support of the Foot. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery,45(6), 1184-1190. doi:10.2106/00004623-196345060-00006

Lee, D., Kim, Y., Yun, J., Jung, M., & Lee, G. (2016). A comparative study of the electromyographic activities of lower extremity muscles during level walking and Pedalo riding. Journal of Physical Therapy Science,28(5), 1478-1481. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.1478

Maurer, C., Mergner, T., Bolha, B., & Hlavacka, F. (2001). Human balance control during cutaneous stimulation of the plantar soles. Neuroscience Letters,302(1), 45-48. doi:10.1016/s0304-3940(01)01655-x

Wang, Z., & Newell, K. M. (2012). Asymmetry of foot position and weight distribution channels the inter-leg coordination dynamics of standing. Experimental Brain Research,222(4), 333-344. doi:10.1007/s00221-012-3212-7

Yoon, H., Kim, J., Park, J., & Jeon, H. (2017). Comparison of the Foot Muscle EMG and Medial Longitudinal Arch Angle During Short Foot Exercises at Different Ankle Position. Physical Therapy Korea,24(4), 46-53. doi:10.12674/ptk.2017.24.4.046