Good health starts with happy feet. Here are some tips to treat your feet and keep them in good condition.
Forget Atlas whining about the weight of the world on his shoulders: your feet have it worse. Every day they carry you some 10,000 steps and bear several hundred tonnes of impact.
But when it comes to your health priorities, they’re usually the furthest things from your mind – in every sense. “People take [their feet] for granted,” says podiatrist Rock Positano. “Then you develop a problem and it’s, ‘Oh my God, I can’t walk anymore’.”
Sure, that sounds dramatic, but research has shown that most people wait until they’re in debilitating pain before seeking medical attention for foot problems (one in five Aussies suffer foot pain, but weirdly, nearly 85 per cent of us have never seen a podiatrist).
And most women still squeeze into uncomfortable shoes (between 70 and 80 per cent of us, according to a UK study). All this proves that few of us go head over heels when it comes to foot care.
Maybe it would help if you understood what a masterpiece your hardest-working body part really is?
Consider this: the foot’s 26 bones, 33 joints and 100-plus tendons, muscles and ligaments are such engineering marvels that Leonardo da Vinci had a fetish (they were a favourite sketch subject).
He wasn’t the first: ancient Egyptians believed that stimulating pressure points in the foot could cure ailments in other parts of the body. Modern studies suggest that this practice – reflexology – can work to relieve headaches, stomach ailments, back pain and PMS.
If you’re not convinced a foot rub offers benefits beyond relaxation, there’s evidence that pain in your soles reflects stress in your soul – hence the term “cold feet”.
“When we’re upset, blood gets shunted away from the feet and hands to muscles in the hips and shoulders so that we can fight or flee,” says Dr Daniel Amen, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California School of Medicine, US.
He adds that the thousands of sensory receptors that cover feet send signals to a part of the brain that sits next to the region controlling sexuality. That might explain why a pair of Louboutins can be an aphrodisiac – for both genders – and gives you all the more reason to treat your feet to some TLC.
Libido aside, research has also linked stress on these complex instruments to malfunctions in the ankle, knee, and hip joints as well as back pain and arthritis of the knees.
Unsurprisingly, those killer stilettos are the prime suspects. They tilt your body forward so the balls of your feet are bearing the brunt of your weight.
“High heels put more force on an area of your foot that’s not designed to absorb all that shock,” says physical therapist Mary Ellen Franklin.
The shifting weight forces your ankles, knees and hips to absorb the pounding and work harder to provide stability. Plus, your altered posture (hips tilted back, spine arched forward) can potentially compress the spinal discs.
So-called comfy shoes like ballet flats and thongs can be almost as damaging.
Without support, your arches suffer extra strain, causing tiny tears in the tissue that, over time, can get so bad that you feel searing cramps with each step – a condition called plantar fasciitis. It’s the number one reason women visit a podiatrist, so try to balance wearing flats with some shoes that give your feet support.
Before walking a step, much less a kilometre, in any shoes, put them through this test:
“Grab one by the toe and the heel, then try to twist it and fold it in half,” says podiatrist Christine Dobrowolski, author of Those Aching Feet. It should flex only in the toe area and where the feet naturally bend.
If you can fold the shoe completely, don’t buy it. Look for shoes with cushioning, arch support and a heel that won’t collapse when squeezed.
Next time you hit the shoe store, have your feet measured – weight fluctuation, age and pregnancy can cause feet to spread and change in shape. (Consider what all three can do to your breasts – and they don’t take anywhere near the abuse your feet do.) Try on shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are most swollen, advises Dr Dobrowolski, and make sure there’s a centimetre gap in front of your longest toe.
Even if your shoe collection is made up of stilettos and thongs, it’s not too late for damage control: foot ailments don’t usually develop until your 40s and 50s.
The most dreaded tight-shoe trouble is the bunion – a bony knob that grows out of the big toe joint, usually due to narrow shoes that force toes to bend at an unnatural angle. The only sure way to get rid of them is surgery, but it’s painful and means you’ll be wearing a cast for two months.
Less severe cases can be relieved with orthotic devices – custom-moulded shoe liners that redistribute your weight, taking pressure off the joints.
There are less costly fixes you can make before a doctor steps in, like training your feet to walk in heels in a way that minimises damage.
Calf raises are crucial, because high heels shorten calf muscles and lead to cramps. To strengthen your arches, balance one foot on a step with your heel hanging off the edge and slowly raise it up and down.
Yoga instructor Christine Ambrosino has clients curl their toes around a towel to strengthen arches and the tendons of the soles. Something else you can do for your feet is give them a little TLC. Try this at-home pedicure:
Don’t cheat yourself out of a foot soak just because you’re doing your pedicure at home. This step cleans your feet, makes you feel amazing and softens dead skin cells in preparation for exfoliation.
As you let a tub fill with warm water, remove all traces of old polish. Add to the water a teaspoon of tea tree oil (to banish stinky bacteria), a capful of witch hazel (to cleanse and tone), a half cup of Epsom salts (to rejuvenate) and three drops of peppermint or rosemary oil (to heal and freshen). Soak your feet for five to 10 minutes. Short on time? Toss in a mix, such as The Body Shop Peppermint Foot Fizzies or Avon Foot Works Double Action Foot Soak.
STEP 2 Scrub off dead skin
To slough off rough spots, look for exfoliants with medium-sized grains, like sugar or salt crystals (sugar is less irritating to your skin) and moisturising agents such as jojoba or almond oil. Try Garnier Body Tonic Sugar Scrub or L’Occitane Honey & Lemon Sweet Sugar Scrub.
Massage each foot for a minute or two with a 50-cent blob of scrub. Start at your heel and work your way out to your toes and ankles, and then back up to your calves, using tiny circular motions. Rinse off with warm water.
STEP 3 Buff away bumps
It’s time to smooth calluses. Wet a pumice stone or lava rock, like Avon Footworks Pumice Stone and Brush. Coat it with a little body wash, such as Weleda Sea Buckthorn Creamy Body Wash. If you’re in a hurry, try a 3-in-1 such as Crabtree & Evelyn’s La Source Foot Smoother. The pumice, shea butter and sea algae cleanse, exfoliate and moisturise.
Using a back-and-forth motion, lightly scrape your heels, the bottoms of your feet and your toes. The key is to be gentle – you want to abrade only the very top layer of skin, not rub your flesh raw. And don’t even think about attacking calluses with a razor blade. The results won’t be pretty.
STEP 4 Trim and file
Use a strong toenail clipper like Manicare Toenail Clippers to trim nails straight across, then smooth edges with a nail file – try a glass file like the Essie Crystal file; the abrasive surface doesn’t wear away, and you can wash and re-use it. A rounded shape helps prevent painful ingrown nails.
STEP 5 Moisturise and massage
Drench your soles with moisturiser. Try Clarins Foot Beauty Treatment Cream; it has shea butter to lock in moisture, arnica to reduce inflammation and Laponite powder, which zaps odour. Using a circular motion, massage a 50-cent dollop over your feet and lower legs.
Then, with your index finger knuckle, press gently into the arch of one foot and knead; repeat on the other foot. This mini-massage will relax your feet while boosting circulation, which reduces swelling. For hot and bothered feet, look for soothing ingredients like St John’s wort, or lavender and rosemary in Aveda’s Foot Relief.
STEP 6 Polish
Use a non-acetone remover to get rid of any residue (acetone-based removers can dry out the nail and cuticle). Insert separators between your toes and apply a basecoat with protein, vitamin E or calcium, to strengthen nails and hold polish. Try Cutex 3 in 1 Strengthener.
Now for the colour. Starting just above the cuticle, sweep down the centre of your nail towards the tip of your toe. Then colour each side and across the edge of your nail. Add a second coat then a finishing topcoat to seal colour and prevent chipping.
When nails are dry, massage in cuticle oil (try Lush Lemony Flutter Cuticle Butter) to pump shine and protect against smudges.