Foot pain is something many of us don't think about until it strikes. After all, you eat a healthful diet to protect yourself from heart disease and go to the gym to prevent the loss of lean muscle mass, but are you doing anything today in hopes of heading off foot pain tomorrow?
Your feet quite literally help you take steps toward better overall wellness—a power walk in the park, a trip down the produce aisle—among many other things. How you care for them plays a big part in your being able to continue the very activities you do to stay healthy and happy easily and without pain. The impact can be substantial. For example, do you love tennis? A staggering 72 percent of Americans say foot pain prevents them from exercising, according to a survey by the American Podiatric Medical Association. Have to hit the stairs to get to your laundry room? Fifty-three percent report foot pain so severe that it impacts their daily life.
Though years of use make foot aches more common in older individuals, these foot care strategies can help ward off future pain and lessen any you may already have:
Maintain a healthy weight. Carrying excess pounds puts a lot of strain on all of your muscles and joints, including the ones in your feet. In fact, a study by the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society found that just 10 extra pounds can cause foot pain. Maintaining a healthy weight allows your joints to move freely and through their full range of motion without the added pressure that can cause achiness later on.
Exercise your feet. Yes, your feet help you exercise—but they can use a workout of their own, too—and walking is one your best options because it requires your foot to go through its full range of motion. In addition to taking the recommended 10,000 steps a day, doing specific daily foot stretches can ease and also help prevent discomfort. Try these exercises two to three times a day:
- Kneel on a mat or rug and tuck your toes underneath you. Slowly lower yourself down so that your butt is resting on your heels. Place your hands on your thighs. Stay in this position for 30 seconds. Then, slowly lift yourself back up, un-tuck your toes so the tops of your feet are flat on the ground, and sit back down on your heels. Repeat one more time. This exercise stretches the muscles in your soles as well as the tops of your feet, improving circulation.
- Stand a few inches from a wall with your right leg bent at a 45-degree angle and your left leg extended straight behind you, heel down, so you’re in a lunge position. Place your palms flat against the wall at shoulder height. Move your hips forward until you feel a stretch in your left calf. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side. The stretch in your calf extends through your foot, helping tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot become more limber and less prone to pain (especially helpful if you have plantar fasciitis).
Choose the right shoes. Though they may be stylish, tight or unsupportive shoes can cause problems that range from aches and pains to corns and ingrown toenails. Select a pair that doesn’t cram your toes or otherwise pinch your feet. Also, since your feet can actually grow longer and wider as tendons loosen with age, consider getting measured to ensure that you’re wearing the right size. Proper arch support and cushioning can also fend off pain stemming from the natural deterioration of the fat pads on the bottoms of your feet. Some styles are designed with this in mind, though you can also use over-the-counter insoles or custom shock-absorbing orthotics. The latter are especially helpful if you have flat feet or if your job requires all-day standing. Avoid unsupportive flip flops that provide no cushion. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to wear comfortable shoes with the proper amount of arch support and ankle stabilization,” says Cynthia Geyer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. "The good news is that you no longer have to choose between that and style. Choices abound, and good shoes are worth the investment."
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Think twice about your socks. Opt for athletic or multisport socks that allow your feet to breathe and pull moisture away from your skin. Good fabric choices include silk, wool and high-tech wicking synthetics. Those made from non-wicking materials can cause your feet to sweat and stay moist, which can lead to athlete's foot, rashes and even toenail fungus—all of which, if persistent, can cause pain. If you’re prone to blisters, try a pair of cushioned or walking socks, which are padded to protect your feet while you walk or run.
Go barefoot less often. Walking around with bare feet (or in simple flip-flops) may be comfortable, but it’s not ideal. Doing so leaves your feet without support and raises your risk of injury and fungal infections—whether it’s from stubbing your toe or stepping on a sharp object—which can cause pain and discomfort. Of course, going shoeless is OK every so often, especially if your feet don’t have any calluses and still have sufficient fat padding. Just be mindful of where you’re freely wandering and avoid public areas.
Consult your doctor. As you get older, arthritic pain can occur as your toes contract more, and conditions such as hammertoe (when the middle joint bends downward) or bunions (a bony bump at the base of the big toe) may appear. Plus, your nails can become thicker over time, making you more susceptible to ingrown toenails. Consult a podiatrist about any changes you notice in order to head off aches early on. While you’re there, consider requesting a gait and posture analysis—learning about the way you stand and step with your feet can provide insight on why you might be feeling pain. “A gait analysis can personalize the approach to preventing foot pain by looking at how you walk and where there might be imbalanced pressure, and it can help assess the need for insoles,” Dr. Geyer says.