Feet are the foundation of the body. They are our base of support and are responsible for keeping us upright. They also work to keep hips, knees, and even shoulders in good alignment.
Because of the important role they play, feet need to be strong, supple and balanced. But keeping them in tip top condition isn’t easy. Even everyday things like wearing rigid shoes all day long leave them stiff and weak.
So, how do we combat the negative effects of modern life and optimise our foot health? Well, as with the rest of the body, exercise and self-massage is the answer. Plus, practising Pilates regularly also helps.
However, if you tend to neglect this part of your anatomy – despite toning your bum and abs – then you’re not alone. Most people are guilty of doing so, which is partly why foot pain and injuries (like plantar fasciitis) are so common these days.
Luckily for you, CP are going to motivate you to get strengthening these vital structures. So, keep scrolling. Because our team are here to educate you on why your feet need exercise.
Awareness is the first step
Only think about your feet when you get the occasional pedicure? Then it’s time to get properly acquainted with them.
So, take a second and tune into your feet. Is your weight more on one side than the other? Is one foot rolling inwards or outwards? Is there more weight on your toes or heel?
Problems in your feet can have a disastrous effect on the alignment of the whole body. This means that, if you do discover discrepancies in your feet, it’s important to find the cause and correct it.
Ignoring alignment issues – or failing to fix them by attending Pilates classes – can eventually lead to weaknesses and injury.
Your feet: the common problems
Problem 1: weak feet
Most people mistakenly believe that the foot has one arch. In fact, the foot has three: one along the width of the foot and two either side of the length of the foot.
These arches are formed by the tarsal and metatarsal bones, which are supported by the ligaments and tendons in the foot. A length of thick connective tissue called the plantar fascia also supports these arches.
When these muscles weaken (because of sudden weight gain or wearing bad shoes), the plantar fascia drops. Without the support of the fascia the arches “fall”. This is what causes the foot to flatten.
What are the problem associated with fallen arches?
The arches of the foot act in a spring-like way to absorb the shock of the ground forces when walking or running. And these are serious forces to contend with. Just walking creates a ground force of more than 1.5 times your body weight, while running increases this to at least three to four times body weight.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why, without these structures, the body is at greater risk of an injury.
Weak arches can also lead to the foot rolling inwards, called over-pronation. This brings with it its own set of problems.
The problem with over-pronation
As Helen O’Leary, Physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates points out; “excessive pronation of the foot alone changes muscle tension around the pelvis and hips which can lead to other injuries.”
How exactly? Well, faulty mechanics in the foot and ankle can lead to the knee collapsing inwards, causing knee pain and injury. Poor alignment in the foot and knee can also negatively affect function at the hip. This can result in pain and injury in this area, too.
Without correctly aligned feet and knees, glute medius and the adductors (muscles stabilising the hips and pelvis), won’t activate properly.
And gym fans out there, listen up.
This also means that exercises designed to strengthen the glutes, like squats, won’t be very effective.
At the same time, excessive pronation of the foot and an inwardly collapsing knee can be a result of problems further up the chain. If you’re suffering with these issues and you’ve ruled out the feet, look for the source at knee and hip level.
Problem 2: Stiff, immobile feet
The foot is a dynamic structure. It is made up lots of bones – 26 to be precise – and more than 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons.
These structures are what allows for the body to make constant adjustments to adapt to different surfaces. This is what protect you from falls and injury.
Feet also need to be able to pronate (roll inwards) to absorb the shock of landing on hard ground when you walk or run.
All of this means that – like with the rest of the body – feet need to be flexible as well as strong and stable.
In our barefoot state, feet naturally develop these strong, supple muscles that can adapt to the environment quickly.
The problem is, most people are stuck in either restrictive footwear or cushioned shoes with orthotics (foot supports) most of the day. These prevent feet from moving naturally and freely. Structured shoes also prevent toes from spreading out to support us.
Why are inflexible feet a problem?
“Your feet are the contact point with the ground and have to mould and adapt to what’s underneath them to make sure you stay balanced,” says O’Leary. And, as we’ve established, they play an important role in absorbing forces when you walk and run.
But if feet are stiff or weak they can’t effectively react or deaden impact from the ground. When this is the case, your chances of sustaining an injury when you walk or run are greater.
Problem 3. Poor proprioception
Your feet are amongst the most nerve-rich of anywhere in your body (the sole of one foot has over 200,000 nerve endings!).
And there is good evolutionary reason for this – feet are our contact with the ground. This means that sensory information is sent from them to the brain, and from the brain to the body. This is what allows us to adapt to our surroundings as we walk.
This kind of nerve communication is called proprioception and is vital for protecting us from falls. Good foot proprioception also helps us move in the most efficient and agile way.
However, when the body’s natural process of proprioception is impaired, problems occur. This most often happens as a result of injury to the foot and certain illnesses. Studies on barefoot running suggest that even thick-soled trainers can negatively affect these senses.
Why is poor proprioception a problem?
Without good proprioception, we are prevented from reacting properly to the surface we are walking on. In turn, this stops us from altering our gait or foot position appropriately.
As a result, we are at a much greater risk of falls or of damaging the foot or lower limbs.
People with multiple sclerosis, for instance, often have poor plantar-sensory feedback (the sensation on the soles of their feet). This affects their proprioception, and as a result their gait and balance.
Amazingly, trials on people with multiple sclerosis have shown that improving foot sensation could potentially counter these problems.
Proprioception impacts sports performance
Poor proprioception is a big issue for keen sportspeople.
Take running, for example.
Although human beings are designed for this sport, the injury level among runners is surprisingly high. In fact, reports show that 30 to 50 percent of runners suffer an injury over the course of a 12-month period.
These statistics are especially surprising given the large number of people wearing supportive, high-tech running shoes.
However, new research makes more sense of these findings. Because, the research suggests, these shoes may actually be causing some of these injuries. How exactly? By getting in the way of plantar-sensory feedback.
How does footwear affect sensory perception?
At this point, there is little conclusive research in this area. But, the evidence we do have suggests that thick-soled, restrictive running shoes are interfering with sensory input.
This is important because plantar-sensory feedback sends important information to the brain about the strength of ground forces underfoot.
In turn, this helps the person running to modify their technique to cope with the impact. By wearing certain shoes (or so the theory goes) these protective mechanisms are prevented from kicking-in. And this is where the danger for runners – and their feet – lies.
So, what can we do to fix these problems?
Getting in the studio and practising Pilates footwork on the reformer is always a good start. But aside from that, certain home exercises and self-massage techniques can be helpful in restoring foot function.
So, stay tuned for part two of this series on foot health. In it we will be teaching you how to perform a series of Pilates exercises to help you build strong, flexible and healthy feet.
Education is key:
These blogs are designed to give information to everyone, however, it is important to remember that everyone is different! If you have not seen one of our therapists and have any questions about injuries, what you have read or whether this may be useful to you, please just ask. We are more than happy to help anyone and point you in the right direction. Our biggest belief is that education is key. The more you understand about your injury, illness and movement, the more you are likely to improve.
If you are not sure whether this is for you, simply get in touch
. We are here to help!