Do you have old person feet? Yes, I do actually ask my clients this question, and no I am not implying that all seniors have bad feet. I want to know — are your toes curled up and cramped with probably sore feet, poor balance and dysfunctional arches? A healthy foot has spaces between the toes.
Statistically, we’re told seniors have higher incidences of falls due to a decrease in balance as we age. That’s true, but not because we’re “just getting old.” Generally as we age we lower our levels of activity for various reasons such as, “I ache,” or, “I’m old and don’t feel like moving anymore,” or, “I’m scared of falling.” All these things are counterintuitive. If we maintain our movement, we maintain our balance, confidence, and health! Old person feet occur because the muscles in the foot get shut off, for one reason or another, and over time just get used to that position. This will also cause stiffening in the ankle which limits the flexion we have in walking. That, plus the cramped-up toes mean more chance of catching your toes/foot on a crack, stair, carpet, or patch of ice — increasing your chance of a fall. This stiffening also increases the chance of stress fractures in the foot and many conditions all the way up the chain, as high as the neck!
There are many young people who have old person feet. Why?
Remember that fad that swept across the running and exercise world not too long ago claiming minimalist shoes and barefoot running were the thing to do? Well, it wasn’t entirely wrong. Regular footwear, orthotics, and workout shoes with all that support are really not doing us any favours. Not only do they cramp the toes, they also provide for zero foot activity. When a muscle group isn’t used it gets shut off entirely, and when this happens in the foot, can result in plantars fasciitis, morton’s neuroma, fallen arches, bunions, metatarsalgia, etc.
So your knee hurts, your back hurts, your hip hurts, your neck hurts… Treat the area that hurts and correct the core, hips, and general posture. Check the foot posture and build upwards from there. Also, just because your mother and grandmother had flat feet doesn’t mean you are doomed to orthotics. The muscles of the foot arches can be retrained — all within your power. Our general posture is a learned habit and if it’s bad, can be retrained — again, all within your power.
So what should we do – go barefoot all the time? No, that’s not likely to happen. We’ve created a stigma around our feet: it’s not hygienic to not wear shoes; it’s not healthy; it’s ugly — our feet aren’t pretty… Obviously, don’t go barefoot through the garage or to work, but whenever you can, give your feet some work outside of the shoes. When you’re at home, how about not wearing your indoor shoes? Give your feet some time to progress and you should notice some benefits.
How do you actually fix your flat feet, or bunions, or cramped old person feet? The first thing to do is to get the intrinsic muscles of your foot working again, and one of the best ways is to do “toe crunches.” Keep your feet flat on the ground in a seated position (or standing), and curl your toes in (if you put a towel on the ground, you’re pulling and crunching the towel IN with your toes). Repeat this for sets of 10-15, as much as possible. You should feel the arch of your foot contracting.
The next thing you should do is as much balance work as possible, out of shoes. Stand on one leg whenever you can, focusing on centring your weight between the ball of your foot, your heel, and the outside/ball of your pinky toe. Watch you DO NOT use your toes to grip the ground. If your weight is centred the toes should relax!
These simple exercises can be done anywhere, even from inside your shoes. Toe crunches will get those arches functioning properly again, and as your awareness and balance increase, you should notice other changes in your foot, knee, and even hip/back. Have fun!