The Road to Healthy Feet

By Colin Beavan,


During your lifetime, you'll put about 115,000 miles on your feet -- more than five laps around the planet -- and the 26 bones, 19 muscles and 107 ligaments in each foot will feel the strain with every step. That's OK: Your feet are built like a '66 Plymouth Valiant. They'll withstand years of heavy mileage, as long as you service them once in a while. Abuse them and you risk painful breakdowns. Here are the most common dog-pounders and how to avoid them.


Too Much Shoe Time

      A study of 1,846 people at Kasturba Medical College in India found that those who started wearing shoes before age 6 were twice as likely to have flat arches (a deformity) as those who stayed shoeless until age 16 or older. Going barefoot is good for your feet because your naked step stresses all the muscles evenly. "Shoes constrict the arch and toe muscles, so they become weak," says Dr. Carol Frey, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California. "And weak feet have no more resistance against deformity than a bunch of wet noodles."
      Dress codes and broken beer bottles make shoes a necessity in this country, but you can still maximize your barefoot time. "Kick off your shoes as soon as you get home," Dr. Frey advises. And wear sandals or flip-flops whenever possible -- they're the closest thing to bare feet.


Narrow Shoes

      Dress shoes are often too narrow for the average American man's "meaty toes," says Dr. Steven Subotnick of the California College of Podiatric Medicine. Cramming your feet into slender shoes can compress the metatarsal bones, pinching nerves and causing chronic pain in the ball of the foot. (It's called Morton's neuroma.) Also, scrunching your toes against the front of the shoe can cause hammertoe, a clawlike deformity in which your first toe joint is permanently bent. This can alter your gait and encourage blisters and corns.
      To avoid these painful conditions and the cortisone injections or surgery they can require, be sure your shoes have ample toe room, both horizontally and vertically. Better yet, Dr. Subotnick says, switch to shoes that are squarer in the toe, and choose wide, light hiking boots for long walks; they give your toes more headroom than sneakers do. See an orthopedist or podiatrist if you have recurrent toe cramps, tingling between your toes or aching in the balls of your feet.


Thinking That New Shoes Need to Be Broken In

      "If your shoes aren't perfectly comfortable when you leave the store, you're headed for problems," says Dr. Glenn Gastwirth, executive director of the American Podiatric Medical Association. Here's the checklist he follows at every fitting:

bulletBuy shoes late in the day, when your feet are largest.
bulletFor the best fit, wear the type of socks you'll wear most often with the shoe.
bulletMeasure your shoe size (standing), even if you measured it only a week ago. Use it as a rough guide: A shoe in your size could actually be two sizes bigger or smaller.
bulletOne of your feet is bigger than the other. Choose the pair that best fits your larger foot.
bulletMake sure there's half an inch of space in front of your longest toe, and that you can easily wiggle your toes up and down.
bulletSlip off the shoes and compare them with your bare feet. If each shoe isn't obviously wider and longer than your foot, go half a size bigger.
bulletTest-drive the shoes on a hard floor as well as on a carpet. If possible, go for a 10-minute walk -- or jog, if it's a sport shoe. Feel for hot spots.


Living Return                             Top Return
Living Return               Top Return