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Happy Feet: The Healthy, Pretty, Pain-Free Foot Care Guide

 

Feet Sheet

  • They contain a quarter of all the bones in your body.
  • They log, on average, 1,000 miles a year.
  • They absorb one-and-half times your body weight with each step.
  • And they get zero respect.

We're talking, of course, about your feet. Sure, you may treat them to the occasional pedicure or prop them up at the end of a long day. But experts say we ought to be much, much kinder than that. "The feet are the second-hardest working part of your body. The first is your heart," says Steven Ross, MD, president elect of the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society. "Your feet are your foundation; if they hurt, you're going to be a very unhappy person." So let's spread a little love. Here, everything you need to know for feet that feel good all day, every day — no matter what you put them through.

5 Pain Solutions

The five most common things that can go wrong down there — and how to eliminate every last ache and pain.

  1. Foot Cramps
    Those weird muscle spasms that can make your toes or arches lock up.
    Make it better: Drink plenty of water, especially when you're active (dehydration is a major cause), and strengthen your feet. "We don't use the small muscles in our feet effectively, so lactic acid builds up and the muscles go into spasm," says Dr. Ross.
    Try this: Sit in a chair, place a hand towel on the floor, and pick it up with your foot. Continue, alternating feet, until your toes are tired, and repeat daily.
  2. Plantar Fasciitis
    A sharp pain under your heel due to inflammation of the tissue that connects your heel bone to the base of your toes.
    Make it better: Take ibuprofen (if approved by your doctor) and rest your foot for a week or so, advises Dr. Ross. When you start exercising again, take it easy.
    Try this: Stretching can help. Cross the ankle of the foot that's bothering you over your opposite knee, then bend your toes back with one hand as you massage the arch of your foot with the other. Do this for 30 seconds three or four times a day. If the pain persists, see your doctor, who may give you a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation.
  3. Plantar Warts
    These crop up on the soles of your feet and are caused by a viral infection.
    Make it better: Apply an over-the-counter wart treatment, such as a salicylic acid patch. If it doesn't clear up in a few weeks, see your doctor for a more potent in-office treatment, such as freezing the wart off, says Dr. Ross.
  4. Stress Fracture
    A small crack in a bone in your foot (for runners, often in the forefoot) that causes pain and swelling. Suddenly upping the intensity or frequency of your workouts can cause this, says Dr. Ross.
    Make it better: Go easy on yourself. Light, low-impact exercise — walking or swimming — is okay if it's not painful. Otherwise, take a break for a few days. Stress fractures often heal on their own, but if the pain persists after several weeks, see your doctor to rule out a more severe break, advises Dr. Ross. Once you're feeling better, be sure to up the intensity of your workouts gradually.
  5. Achilles Tendinitis
    A sharp pain above your heel bone that occurs when you stand or walk, caused by inflammation of the tendon that runs up the back of your ankle. People who have mild cases often notice the pain only after exercising.
    Make it better: Avoid strenuous activity for a few weeks and take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen (if approved by your doctor) to ease soreness and swelling. And be sure to stretch the area before working out. "Wearing heels, then exercising without stretching first, puts extra stress on the tendon," says Dr. Ross.
    Try this: To limber up, lower your heels off a step and hold for 10 seconds. Do this two or three times daily, with your knees bent, then straight (this hits different parts of the tendon). As with any injury that is very painful or doesn't get better in a few weeks, see your doctor.

How to Buy Sneakers

Before you even set foot in the store to buy a pair of sneakers, ask yourself these key questions, says Todd Galati, clinical exercise specialist for the American Council on Exercise and an adjunct professor of biomechanics and kinesiology at California State University, San Marcos.

  • What's the main activity I'll be doing in these shoes?
    You'll need different types of support and cushioning for different activities. Otherwise, it's like trying to play tennis with a racquetball racquet, says Galati. You might be able to hit the ball, but you'll be at a disadvantage.
  • Do I need extra cushioning or motion control?
    This depends largely on the type of arch you have. Do the bathmat test to figure it out: Look at the mark your damp feet leave on a mat when you get out of the shower. Notice your heel and forefoot, but see little or no connection in between? You've got high arches, and you'll need sneakers with extra shock absorption. If it's more a solid oval than a kidney shape, you have low arches; look for shoes that help prevent your feet from overpronating, or rolling in, when you exercise.
  • What size am I?
    Sneakers usually run smaller than regular shoes, so you may go up as much as a full size. Get measured, ideally with the socks you'll be wearing — they can affect both the width and the length.
  • How do they feel?
    Galati recommends that you try on at least four pairs of shoes, walking around the store in them to make sure the heel doesn't slip and that there's no rubbing or pinching. No good shoe — athletic or otherwise — should have to be broken in.

4 Big Fat Feet Lies

Surprising misconceptions — finally set straight:

Lie #1: Flip-flops are totally foot-friendly.

They may seem ideal, but traditional flip-flops don't have support or cushioning. So chances are, your feet will hurt after walking in them for a few hours, says Jim Christina, director of scientific affairs for the American Podiatric Medical Association. In fact, wearing flip-flops for long periods can lead to tendinitis, arch pain, and ankle sprains.

Lie #2: Foot size and width stay pretty much the same.

Pregnancy, weight gain, even the simple fact of aging can cause ligaments in your feet to stretch, making them potentially a half to a whole size larger, says Donald Bohay, MD, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Michigan State University.

Lie #3: Some foot pain is completely normal.

"Definitely not!" says Dr. Ross. Any discomfort means that you need to wear different shoes, give your feet a rest, or change the surface you're exercising on (by switching to a treadmill, for example, which is more forgiving than concrete or pavement).

Lie #4: The best athlete's foot prevention is wearing flip-flops in the locker room.

It helps, but what really causes this virus to grow and spread is trapping your feet in a moist environment (like sweaty socks or sneakers that aren't well-ventilated) after being exposed to it. Immediately after exercise, swap your sneakers out for a pair of treads.

2-Minute Foot Fix

These quick moves from Crunch Fitness's Stiletto Strength class will improve your balance, strengthen your arches, ankles, and calves, and make tromping around town infinitely more bearable.

Plie and Releve combo

  1. Stand facing the back of a chair, with your feet hip-width apart and your toes turned out; rest your hands on the top of the chair for balance. Slowly bend your knees and lower into a plie; pause, then return to the starting position. Do 10 times.
  2. With your feet still wide and toes turned out, lift up onto your toes, keeping your legs straight; pause; then lower. Do 10 times.
  3. Finally, combine the two exercises: From your starting position, lift onto your toes, then bend your knees and lower into a plie (keeping your heels lifted); pause; straighten your legs and stand up, then lower your heels back to the floor. Do 10 times. Do three sets of each of these exercises at least three days a week.

5 Cool Sneakers

The newest wave of tech-y kicks are all about making your workouts easier and more comfortable — in fact, they do everything but actually run or walk for you. Check out these state-of-the-art sneaks.

  1. Customizable Fit
    The North Face's Amp Boa laces via a knob at the back of the heel — no tying, just turn it. The result: Less slippage and fewer blisters! ($110; thenorthface.com)
  2. A Better Treadmill Workout
    The Asics GEL-Treadmill shoe has a tweaked support system that takes stride and foot-strike patterns (which are different when you run on a treadmill versus outside) into account. ($100; asics.com for a retailer, available in July)
  3. Increased Energy
    Brooks' Adrenaline GTS 7 running shoe "MoGo" midsole technology has more cushioning and durability, which keeps you going longer. ($95; brooksrunning.com)
  4. Fewer Injuries and Less Odor
    The design of the NIKE Women's Air Max 100DGRS helps reduce pronation, which can lead to shin splints and knee pain. Plus, the sides are made of mesh with "windows" around the heel. Buh-bye, sweaty pedis! ($90; nikewomen.com)
  5. Longer-Lasting Cushioning
    Adidas' Microbounce+ features a material called TPU that won't break down as fast as that in other shoes, even in tropical temps. ($110; shop adidas.com, available in July)

3 Steps to a Perfect Pedicure

You can get a salon-quality pedicure at home. For feet that look polished without the actual polish, from Roxanne Valinoti, who handles education for Creative Nail Design.

  1. While you're in the shower or bath, exfoliate the bottoms of your feet with a foot file. Don't miss spots like the sides of your big toes, where calluses tend to form. Gently push cuticles back with a washcloth.
  2. Hop out, dry off, then trim and file your nails. Cut them straight across, then clip the very edges at a 45-degree angle. This helps prevent ingrown toenails by softening the corners, says Valinoti. Use a three-way buffer with different grits to polish nails to a high shine.
  3. Slather your feet with a super-thick lotion and slip on a pair of socks for an hour or, better yet, leave them on overnight. The combination of body heat and moisturizer will repair any cracks or roughness in your skin and make your feet sooo soft.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2007.

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