Your feet are probably the last part of your body you think about -- until they start hurting. They're too important to overlook, though: With some 26 bones and a complex framework of muscles, tendons and ligaments, your feet absorb the impact of your full body weight with every step, keeping you balanced and upright in the process.
The problems that can afflict your feet are numerous. Foot odor, cracked skin, fallen arches, corns, ingrown toenails, fungal infections and even damaged bones can cause discomfort and reduced mobility. While some of these problems are congenital, you can avoid many of them with a little TLC. If that wasn't enough of an incentive, all of these problems tend to worsen as we age, so if foot care doesn't seem important now, it will be.
The best way to keep your feet healthy is a simple regimen of daily care that will help keep the skin, bones and muscles of your feet functioning properly. Here are five foot care steps you can use every day.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
Wearing the wrong shoes can affect many aspects of foot health. First, your shoes must fit. Shoes that fit too tightly can cause hammer toe, corns, ingrown toenails and general foot pain. Overly large shoes prevent your heel from settling in the proper place as you walk, causing blisters and calluses, sore heels and excessive shoe wear. Remember that your feet "stretch out" late in the day, so go shoe shopping after work, when your feet are at their largest. You might gain a half size as you age as well, so your usual size from 10 years ago might not be your correct size today.
Some shoes are bad for your feet even if they fit properly. Wearing high heels frequently can cause damage to the bones of the foot. They're fine every once in a while, but you should find a comfortable pair of flat-soled sneakers for everyday wear.
You should also look for the right materials. Synthetics tend not to breathe well, trapping heat and moisture. Natural materials like leather and cotton will keep your feet cooler and release moisture; athletic shoes with special materials or mesh work even better. At the same time, though, you can't really avoid foot sweat. However, you can try to alternate your shoes, so that the pair you wore yesterday has a chance to dry out completely before you wear them again.
Take a Walk
This might seem counterintuitive, since walking puts stress on your feet. The muscles in your feet are just like any other muscles -- they need exercise to stay strong. You can't really lift weights with your foot muscles, so the best way to exercise them is to just take a walk. It doesn't have to be a long walk, but taking one every day will keep those muscles firm and keep your tendons and ligaments flexible. That can prevent fallen arches later in life. And your dog will thank you for it.
If walking causes sore legs or feet, there are a couple of extra steps you can take to improve the problem. Arch support inserts can keep your feet in the proper position to support your weight during walking. Many stores have special measurement devices that will tell you which type of support is right for your foot. If you've been doing a lot of walking on pavement, your feet might not be up to the impact. Try walking on grass, dirt or a soft cinder track for added cushioning.
Of course, make sure you wear those breathable, well-fitted shoes when you walk.
Wash Your Feet Every Day
Even the most conscientious and clean person among us skips washing his or her feet in the shower every now and then. It can be a pain. It's really important to the health of your feet, though.
Your feet spend most of every day trapped inside a pair of shoes. All the moisture and sweat provides fertile ground for bacteria to grow, and the spaces between your toes are even more hospitable for bacteria and fungi. When you don't wash your feet, you're letting that stuff accumulate from day to day. That leads to unpleasant foot odor -- and eventually to fungal infections and other skin problems.
You don't need a special foot wash to clean your feet. Just make sure you give them a thorough soaping, especially between your toes. After your shower, it's equally important to dry your feet (between the toes again) to prevent trapped moisture from letting all that bacteria hang around. Foot powder can keep them dryer longer, too.
Moisturizing your feet seems to contradict everything we've told you about keeping your feet dry. Why would you add extra moisture? The wear and tear endured by your feet each day can result in areas of dry, cracked or scaly skin. If you live in a warm, sunny climate and wear sandals frequently, this problem may be significantly worse.
The cure is simple. Rub a lotion containing cocoa butter (a natural emollient) into the skin of your feet every day. You can do this in the morning, although it's recommended you skip the area between your toes. However, if you have serious scaling or dry skin issues on your feet, you may want to try an overnight moisturizing routine. Simply coat your feet in cocoa butter, then put on a comfortable pair of cotton socks. The socks will hold the cocoa butter against your skin and keep it from getting all over your sheets. In the morning, the skin on your feet will be much softer.
We've already covered the importance of shoes, but socks can be easy to overlook. They're an integral part of your daily foot care routine. Not only do they protect your feet from wear and tear, they absorb and wick away moisture.
Most of the impact of walking or running is absorbed by a layer of fat in your heels. If you spend a lot of time on your feet, your heels might need some extra help. You can use shoe inserts, but a soft pair of socks can add some shock absorption as well. As you age, that fat layer gets thinner, so cushy socks becomes even more important. In addition, socks act as a barrier between your feet and your shoes, reducing blisters and calluses.
Socks also play a vital role in absorbing and drawing moisture away from your feet. For basic day-to-day wear, use socks made with natural fibers like cotton or wool. They're absorbent and will eventually wick moisture away from your feet to the breathable portion of your shoes (leather or mesh). For high-performance socks, there are synthetic materials made for athletes that are better at wicking moisture away because the material don't compress as much as natural fibers do when saturated with sweat.
For more information on foot care, see the links on the next page.
If you care for your your hands, you limit wear and tear and make a good first impression. See the five ways to care for your hands to get started.
- American Diabetes Association. "Foot Care." (June 14, 2010)http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/foot-care.html
- Paddock, Catherine. "Three Steps for Healthy Feet." Medical News Today. (June 11, 2010) http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/161652.php
- Richie, Douglas H., Jr. "Socks: Hosiery - Essential Equipment for the Athlete." American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. (June 14, 2010)http://www.aapsm.org/socknov97.html