By Chris Holroyd
A lecturer at the School of Osteopathy I attended once told us how, growing up out in South East Asia, he had spent the first 14 years of his life running, playing and climbing trees barefoot, only really putting on a pair of shoes to go to church on Sundays. On moving to Britain to continue his schooling he had to be measured up for suitable footwear. He recounted how the assistant in the shoe shop was ecstatic at the sight of his perfectly formed arches, declaring that she had never seen feet so well balanced and proportioned! After two or three years, however, of wearing normal footwear, the shape of his feet changed - regressed you might say- to a much more conventional, less athletic shape.
So what can we take from this anecdote?
Well walking around barefoot is certainly neither safe nor practical for many of us, most of the time, in this country. You could try the “five fingered” sorts of shoes with individual toes but the style and fit may not be for everyone.
If we consider that there are four layers of muscles and several ligaments, in the feet and that these are designed to stabilise the foot as we walk or run and yet are barely used and very underdeveloped in most people, then doesn’t it make sense to at least try to improve their function a little bit? After all, our feet help us to absorb and regulate force from the ground as they come into contact with it and if they’re not able to do that efficiently then more of the strain is put on our ankles, knees, hips and spine potentially causing problems in these areas.
What about footwear?
When we walk or run in conventional footwear we are not using the intrinsic muscles of the the foot - the small muscles which enable us to wiggle our toes and “scrunch” them up- we are mainly using the muscles in the calf and around the shin to control the foot. When these intrinsic muscles get lazy and the ligaments weak, one of the first things you may notice is that you get pain underneath the arch of your foot as the ligaments get strained and the arches drop; the foot may even roll in as the arches get into trouble. This is often referred to as “pronation” and you will probably have seen and heard of running shoes and orthotics designed to correct this.
One of the things I often ask patients to do is to try to spread the toes apart with the feet flat on the floor. For many people, especially older patients who’ve had a lifetime of wearing shoes, this is surprisingly difficult, but it is an important first step in activating and strengthening those intrinsic
muscles of the foot. Another exercise is to try to raise the big toe while keeping the other toes on the floor. Try it.......not that easy is it!
Now you’ve warmed up you can try the following exercises, which can be done barefoot or wearing socks, whichever is more comfortable. They are appropriate for people of all ages but as with any exercise if you experience pain, especially sharp pain, this is a contraindication and you should stop.
One thing you may notice, is that when you first try these exercises the muscles underneath the arches may cramp up. This is usually because they are just not used to being used in this way and as they become more accustomed to it the cramping should stop.
Standing up, spread your toes flat on the floor. Now press down with the pads of your toes and contract the front part of your foot. Your toes should be straight, not curled, and only the joints between your toes and rest of your foot should be flexed. You should feel the muscles underneath the foot contract to raise your arches. Hold for a count of 3 and relax. I would suggest 2 sets of 10 to start with and build up from there.
2. The Caterpillar
This exercise follows on from number one. Try to “caterpillar” along the carpet by reaching forward with your toes and pressing them into the ground so as to drag the heels forward but don’t let the heels leave the ground . You should be able to move from one side of the room to the other by moving forward with one foot and then the other. Again, try starting with 2 sets of 10 for each foot.
While standing, roll your foot so you are standing on the outside edge. The ball of your foot and inside of the heel will come off the ground. While keeping the heel in this position, try to press the ball of the foot back on to the ground. This helps to stretch the muscles on the the outside of the
calf, the “everter” muscles, whilst exercising the intrinsic muscles which support the arches.
So there you are- try them out. There are many solutions to foot pain and other associated musculoskeletal pains available these days- a multitude of orthotics and a plethora of different types of footwear, some of which can be very helpful indeed. I’m certainly not suggesting that these
exercises will magically produce arches in chronically flat 40 year old feet. Nor are they a substitute for orthotics, but if done consistently they will tone and strengthen the intrinsic muscles making your feet stronger, more supple and less prone to problems.
Christopher Holroyd D.O. BSc Ost.
Christopher was schooled in Chester before leaving to explore the world outside. It was during this voyage of discovery that he had the great good fortune to happen upon osteopathy having become interested in other complementary therapies as a result of his own back problems. After graduating from the European School of Osteopathy in 2008 he stayed on as an assistant lecturer. He is registered with the General Osteopathic Council and undertakes regular post-graduate training to expand his skills.