What and Why?
Your feet are not, at first, much use to you. They are soft and smooth, simply shaped with neither arch nor any other obvious functional bias. You take some time to work out what to use them for, then have to train them into a useful shape and fit condition during your childhood. How well they will serve you for the rest of your life depends on how well you bring them up in those first few crucial years.
At birth, gravity comes as rather a shock; until then you were floating weightless in your mother’s womb. For the next few months you gradually learn how to resist your weight and lift your body into some kind of posture (see also Backache). The semi-automatic kicking of your first few months gradually becomes more purposeful as you take over voluntary control of your nervous system from above downwards.
Your hands and mouth may actually discover your feet first, long before you have any real use for them. You may take a while to realise that they belong to you! As long as you sit or lie, they are in view and serve as extra hands; but when you get interested in crawling and walking you lose sight of them and they begin to develop as shock-absorbers and springs, specialized for balancing and moving over all sorts of ground surface.
To function in this way your foot forms a springy arch between your heel and the bases of your toes, braced by the muscles within your foot and on your shin. This sets up your ankle perfectly level, making sprains unlikely and providing the foundation for your upright posture.
Posture and health
If you think of your bones as being stacked up like a building, you can see how crucially important your feet are to good posture. They set up your ankle joint so that your legs rise from there at a comfortable angle with your knees poised for smooth function and minimum wear, able to lock properly when fully straightened. Your thighs are therefore comfortably aligned, and your hips too can rest in their most economical position. The posture of your pelvis then provides the ideal platform for a well-balanced spine.
Walking must be a precarious skill for human beings because a lot of us develop poorly in this respect. You may have failed from the beginning to brace up your foot arches adequately, which would have splayed your feet and ankle tendons outwards destroying their springiness. Your legs would then have twisted inwards to compensate, making your kneecaps ‘squint’. In that situation the ligaments on the inside of your knees are over-strained and may begin to hurt. Meanwhile your thigh and pelvic postures are distorted, making you prey to osteoarthritis in your hips and lower spine. All these errors get built into the shape of your bones as they grow, making them permanent.
Footwear does not help. If worn too young it splints your feet and moulds them into an unnatural and inefficient shape. Built and fitted properly, shoes could correct early postural errors and enable your bones and joints to grow normally; but designers are a long way from realizing that.
What can I do?
Advice to maintain and maximise your health
1. Appropriate footwear: Avoid substantial footwear for your children up to about two years of age. For outdoor trips in winter, dress them in loose-fitting socks or leggings only. Let them learn and practise walking barefoot. This is safe even on gravel and will toughen the soles of their feet properly.
2. Note Posture: If, when they walk, their ankle tendons seem to be splayed outwards when viewed from behind, consult a Podiatrist. He or she is able to correct this error inexpensively and permanently in a toddler: older people may need expensive tailored insoles for the rest of their lives. Since this will probably prove to be a major cause of osteoarthritis, treatment is worthwhile at any age. Lobby for it to be properly investigated and incorporated into the National Health Service if the results impress you enough to justify this.
3. Fitting footwear: By the time they are ready for shoes their feet will be strongly formed. Choose the right shape as well as an adequate size of shoe, very supple and light. Do not accept shoes which distort their toes, setting them up for bunions — the prominent knuckles that develop at the roots of their big toes under pressure. There must be room in any shoe for big toes to point straight forward.
4. Beware of elastic socks in artificial fabrics, which usually offer a very limited range of sizes. When stretched they squeeze your toes quite powerfully, distorting them almost as surely as badly shaped shoes.
5. Review the size of your family’s footwear every few months. It may get too small before it wears out.
6. Do not permit young teenagers to wear high heels (above 3cm) all day. These pitch their body weight forward, ramming their feet into the front of the shoes and deforming them, however well styled the shoes may be. Low heels and a generous style are essential for day-long wear at school and work, at least until their foot bones solidify permanently, usually by 18 years. Leisure outings for a few hours two or three times a week wearing something more modish do little harm and make room for compromise.
7. Choose leather or canvas uppers always, for good ventilation. Cool, well-aired feet are proof against athlete’s foot and resist verrucas better.