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Go, Baby Toe, GO!

October 20, 2013

Here’s a test for you:

Completely barefoot, stand with your feet pointing straight ahead and spaced hip distance apart.

Keeping the ball of the foot on the floor, can you lift all 10 toes?
Can you lift and spread all 10 toes? Don’t forget the baby toe!
Can you lift the big toes only and leave the other 8 on the ground?
Can you do the reverse?
Can you slowly lift one toe at a time in a fan-like movement and then reverse the movement to put them down?

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How did you do?

This exercise catches many by surprise. Many of my new clients have a hard time with this, even though we live in NYC, one of the best walking cities in the world. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Client: “Are you supposed to be able to do that?”

Me: “Yes. And you probably were able to do it as a young child.”

Client: “Oh. Well, what does it mean if I can’t now?”

Me: ” It means your brain hasn’t asked your feet to move in this way in a long time, so the neurological connection with your motor nerves has been dampened. And because they don’t move that much, you have less blood flow to that area, so the tissues might be undernourished. You might also have some cellular waste building up in your feet, since the lymph system needs movement to work at its best.”

Client: “Yeah, but why can’t I do it now if you say I probably could at one time?”

Me: “Well, most likely it’s your shoes.

And scene. Cut to black.

Now New Yorkers like their shoes, and for good reason. It can be very snowy in the winter, and fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk-hot in the summer. It’s mostly concrete and asphalt, and we’re sharing space with millions of people and their pooping dogs. Oh, and we’re considered one of the fashion capitals of the world.

So, yeah, New Yorkers like shoes, and that’s not ending anytime soon.

But there is a trade off with wearing shoes, especially shoes that bind the feet like a corset and force you to shift your weight forward. Today, let’s just talk about the corseting action.

Throughout history, more than one culture has placed value on dainty feet. While not all went to the extreme of the foot binding endured by Chinese upper class ladies, wearing overly tight shoes has been in vogue for centuries. We tend to not allow space for our toes to move freely, and even squish the toes together to conform to the shape of the shoe.

As a result, most of us have less blood flow, less waste removal, less strength, and less balance capacity in our feet than is optimal.

And our feet hurt!

Many suffer from bunions, hammer toes, claw toes and other painful ailments caused by shoes that don’t follow the shape of a natural, strong foot.

Take a look at some of the shoes I found way back in my closet. See what I mean? For the record, two of these I haven’t worn in years, and others are worn very rarely. But I can’t seem to throw them out. At least not yet.

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And men are not exempt. One of my male clients is an internationally known fashion designer. He has pain in his feet, two bunions, and a hammer toe. What does he blame this on? When he was a growing, gangly teenager, he thought his feet were too big, so he purposely wore shoes that were one 1.5 sizes too small. OUCH! He no longer does that, but since he is a fashion icon he will wear stiff dress shoes that don’t have much wiggle space in them or allow the foot to work as it should. He often has knee pain. I make him work extra hard on his feet.

So, in a world of “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” what is one supposed to do?

Massage and work your feet with your hands. Move individual toes back and forth and spread the toes apart. There are some awesome socks that will help space your toes out, too.

Keep doing the test exercises from above. Even if you only improve the movement a millimeter at a time, it’s worth it! Eventually you want to be able to move the toes while standing, but I also like to practice while taking a bath.

Get more barefoot time: around the house, a soft lawn, a dirt path, at the beach.

Choose exercise modalities that are done in bare feet. I am partial to Restorative Exercise™ and Pilates, but yoga and some dance classes are done in bare feet as well.

Reevaluate your shoe choices, including style and size. Super pointy toes should be saved for super special occasions. Your daily shoe choice should have enough space for your toes to move freely. And get your foot measured often. Our feet change in accordance with our current activities and lifestyle, and you might be surprised.

Check out the many “minimal” or “barefoot technology” shoes. Not only will these usually give you plenty of toe wiggle space, your entire foot will be working more. When I started wearing minimal shoes, I noticed something interesting. My feet no longer hurt at the end of the day, but they were tired. Dog tired. With the minimal shoes, my feet had the freedom to do the work they were built to do, and eventually my feet had the strength and endurance to walk through the streets of NYC all day. Tired feet at the end of the day is a good thing, but pain means your feet aren’t being used in a healthy way.

Here are a few brands that make minimal shoes. Look for a zero drop heel, a flexible sole, and wide toe box!

Tieks
Vivobarefoot
Altra
VibramFiveFingers
Brooks PureProject

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