By Genevieve Morgan
Illustration by Jamie Hogan
Leonardo da Vinci called them a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art. Abraham Lincoln extolled us to put them in the right place and stand firm. They root your posture, symbolize your resilience, and happen to be the most overlooked part of your body—until they start killing you.
Ahhh, summer! And with it, summer feet—that’s what my brothers and I called the calloused soles that developed on our feet after a few weeks of going barefoot. Those first shoeless days were agony, but if you toughed it out, within a month there wasn’t a rocky beach or rutted trail on Mount Desert Island that couldn’t be crossed. Stuffing those horny feet back into shoes come September seemed to be the most inane conceit ever imposed by adults—and, it turns out, we were right: foot nirvana is nakedness walking on warm sand. Shrouding those tootsies in cushioned leather, plastic, nylon, or fabric shoes is a relatively new concept (evolutionarily speaking) invented by our early ancestors when they migrated out of Africa into colder climes and sharper landscapes.
Keeping our feet happy wouldn’t matter so much if we humans didn’t need to move so much to stay healthy. But we do. If there is a fountain of youth, its source is regular, daily physical activity, beginning with simple feet-powered locomotion. If you can’t stand up on your own two feet without pain—and that’s eight out of ten of us, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association—you are eroding the foundation of your health, one missed step at a time.
Kick your shoes off for a minute and take a look at those “feats” of engineering: each of your feet has 26 bones (together the pair comprise one-quarter of the 206 bones in your body), 33 joints, 56 ligaments, 38 muscles, and too many nerves and blood vessels to count. Design-wise, our feet are identical to the ones that carried our ancestors across Eurasia—yet today, we tend to have bodies that are heavier and taller. Each step puts about one-and-a-half times our body weight on a foot, and running stacks on up to three times our weight, depending on the stride. We traverse more pavement and blacktop than grass and sand, and we wear a variety of restrictive footwear, much of it ill fitting and badly suited to our natural, bipedal gait. Women who spend most of their time in heels end up with shortened calf muscles that are vulnerable to tearing when they head out for a hike or a jog.
The laundry list of foot-related plagues is sad and long: in-grown toenails, blisters, arthritis, corns, bunions, tendonitis, bone spurs, and plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the muscle that connects the heel bone to the toes). Knee and hip pain is often related to idiosyncrasies in foot mechanics or bad shoes, and many spinal and joint issues originate all the way down in your feet.
As Gary Gurney, a Portland-based certified Rolfer explains: “Feet need to be stimulated. They need to be used. When we put a bare foot on the ground, it sends information to the brain that helps guide the nervous system [which signals the muscular-skeletal system] as to how and where to move. There’s a suppleness, a chain of communication that gets muted in shoes.” Gurney is an advocate of putting as few layers between your feet and the ground as possible, a philosophy that has caught on in the form of the “natural running” movement. However, he cautions that converts should adapt (or, in this case, re-adapt) to minimalist footwear slowly, since it takes time for the body to adjust to the increased load.
Lucky for sore-footed souls, our state abounds with great pedicare options, ranging from the basic and fun (pedicures) to the complex and decidedly not fun (surgery). Keep in mind that a pedicure is to your feet what flossing is to your teeth: essential hygiene. Anyone can do their own pedicures at home with a tub, some Epsom salts, lotion, and a nail trimmer (not scissors!), but the incredibly relaxing experience of having someone else pamper your feet should not be underappreciated. If you want to bump it up a notch, try reflexology. This alternative medical technique uses acupressure points on the feet thought to correspond to specific organs, glands, and other parts of the body. Practitioners promote general health and relaxation by regulating energetic pathways through hands-on pressure. Most massage therapists have some training in reflexology; others make this practice a specialty.
Chronic back, neck, hip, or knee pain may benefit from bodywork or movement therapies that open and activate the joints of the foot, such as Rolfing, chiropractic manipulation, Alexander technique, and deep-tissue massage. Good therapists will assess your posture and stride and help you tune in to your body mechanics so you can ditch bad habits.
If you walk, run, or play a sport with any regularity, buy sneakers that fit, or try one of the new barefoot running skins. Maine Running Company is a homegrown running specialty store in Portland that was started by John Rogers, a former executive at Reebok and Mizuno. The company has been nationally recognized as one of the top fifty running specialists since its inception in 2005 (and now there’s a second store in Brunswick). They also offer community outreach programs, clinics, and a “personal fit” guarantee that ensures you get the right shoe for your sporting needs.
If, after all this, you continue to experience chronic foot pain or problems, it’s time for a check-in with a podiatrist. Some conditions may require more invasive medical treatment. Look for a podiatrist with the letters DPM (doctor of podiatric medicine) after his or her name and who has board certification, a history of service, and reputable referrals. Your feet deserve nothing less.