How to Care for Your Feet


Take care of your feet to avoid aches and pains that may translate into chronic problems. See more personal hygiene pictures
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­­You may not think about your feet that often -- way down there at the ends of your legs -- but they're an essential part of almost everything you do. Whether walking, running, exercising, or just standing, having feet that are comfortable and well-cared for (rather than aching or in pain) makes the experience must more pleasant. Therefore, knowing how to care for your feet is key.

And, this isn't just about feeling good. When your feet don't get the attention they need, chronic problems can develop, which may trouble you for years to come. In many cases, there are some simple stretches and exercises that can help keep your feet in top form. This article will introduce you to these ideas, as well as provide you with valuable guidelines that will make you an expert shoe-shopper -- able to select supportive, comfortable shoes (in the correct size) every time.

However, there are some situations when caring for your feet on your own is not advised. When serious injury occurs or an emergency arises, you should visit a podiatrist -- or even the emergency room. People who have ongoing circulation problems or diabetes should also consult a doctor where any foot problems are concerned. Here's why:

Circulation problems are often associated with older feet, but the fact is that anyone can have such problems. When there's not enough blood flowing to your feet, you may experience tingling, numbness, cramping, and discoloration of the skin and toenails.

Everyday circumstances can restrict blood flow: when feet get cold outdoors or in cold water; when shoes, stockings, or undergarments are too tight; even when you've sat too long with your legs crossed. Smoking reduces circulation to all parts of the body, as does drinking too much coffee or caffeinated soda (both nicotine and caffeine constrict blood vessels). And if you are under severe stress, your nerves can constrict your small blood vessels, lessening their ability to carry blood. Some nervous brides and grooms really do have "cold feet"!

­ Other people have ongoing medical conditions, such as diabetes, that cause sluggish circulation. In addition, for most of us, a cut or blister is an annoying but relatively minor foot problem. For a diabetic, these "little" wounds can have serious consequences. Diabetics' feet are at two general disadvantages that can lead to specific, serious foot problems.

In addition to reduced circulation, a loss of feeling in the foot, called neuropathy, can prevent diabetics from feeling the small aches and pains that normally signal to us that we've been cut or bruised. As a result, minor problems can go unnoticed and untreated, and infection may develop.

One of the best ways to avoid trouble with your feet is to exercise preventive care. Continue to the next page to learn some simple exercises and stretches that can re-energize your feet anytime during the day.

How to Re-Energize Your Feet

During the course of a day, your feet, like the rest of your body, gradually lose steam. But with the exercises below, you can learn how to re-energize your feet even when you're seated at a desk, at home in front of the television, in class, or on an airplane, train, or bus.

In any of these situations, you can do at least one, if not all, of the following pick-me-ups designed especially for feet that do not get to move around much throughout the day. Each of these exercises should be done while you are seated.

Foot Relaxer: Start by relaxing and loosening the muscles and joints of your feet by shaking them (the same way you'd shake out cramped muscles in your fingers and hands). Then wiggle your toes, first on one foot, then the other.

Foot Press: With your feet on the floor, take your shoes off and place one foot on top of the other. Press the top one down toward the floor while pulling up with the bottom foot -- but don't let your feet separate. This can be a little tricky!

Toe Tap: With your feet on the floor, tap your toes, or pretend that you're pressing down on a pedal, first with one foot, then with the other foot.

Toe Writing: With your feet on the floor and your shoes off, use your toes to "write" the letters of the alphabet, from A to Z, on the floor.

The Grip: With your feet on the floor and your shoes off, try picking up a pencil or pen with your toes. Or try picking up a marble (if you happen to have one lying around).

Page Rippler: With your feet on the floor and your shoes off, place a phone book under your feet, with its binding facing your body. Curl your toes over the far edge and try to ripple the pages.

Once you have revitalized your feet with these seated exercises, you might want to massage your feet a bit. It's a great way to cap off your mini foot workout. See the foot massage page in this article for tips, or try the suggestions below.

Roller Massage: If you're sitting at home with your shoes off, place a rolling pin under one foot. Roll back and forth on the pin with that foot; then do the same with the other foot. This is a way of giving yourself a foot massage without pulling your feet into your lap or getting down on the floor. If you like this, you might even take a rolling pin to the office; then, several times throughout the day, take your shoes off and "roll" the tension out of your feet. This "roller massage" will also work with a tall, narrow bottle. Some people use smaller "rollers" including golf balls and even marbles.

Flex and Point: Try this at home or at the office if there's a way you can prop your legs up so that they're facing straight out in front of you and are parallel to the floor. (In the office, you might prop them on a high stool or another chair; if you're sitting on the couch at home, use the coffee table.) Point your toes forward, like a ballerina pointing her extended foot, and hold that position for 15 seconds. Then relax your toes and reposition your feet so that your toes are pointing toward the ceiling. Repeat this routine -- flex and point ahead of you, then relax and point to the ceiling -- ten times.

Curl and Turn: With your legs propped up in front of you and parallel to the floor, curl your toes, and then (keeping your heels on the surface where they're propped) turn your feet inward. Hold this position for five seconds. Then allow your toes and feet to return to their former, relaxed position.

Purse Lift: [For women] With your back pressed straight against the back of the chair, drape the strap of your purse over one foot. Keeping your knee bent, raise your foot until the purse hangs suspended in the air. Hold that position as long as you can, then lower your foot. Switch the purse to the other foot and repeat the exercise.

If you think these re-energizing techniques are helpful, check out the stretches for stressed-out feet on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Stretch Your Feet

You might not think of your feet as a part of the body in need of stretching, but in fact, a stretch can really help your feet stay fit.

The muscles in your feet have a close relationship with those in your legs: Pain in the leg muscles makes it hard for foot muscles to (comfortably) do their job, and vice versa. Also, many stretching exercises benefit both the feet and the lower legs. Rochelle Rice Cutro, a New York City exercise instructor and creator of a fitness lifestyle program called "In Fitness and In Health," suggests these stretches for this stressed-out area of the body.

Note: These exercises are best practiced at home, but see the previous page for easy stretches you can do while sitting behind a desk.

Lunge: From a standing position, with your feet together and toes pointing forward, "lunge" forward with your right foot. Keep your knees bent and your chest up as you lunge. Be sure your right heel strikes the floor before the rest of the foot. And be sure that you keep your right knee aligned above your right ankle; do not bend your right knee so far that it extends forward beyond the ankle. Return to the normal standing position. Repeat 11 more times; then lunge 12 times with the left foot. To increase the intensity of this stretch, do lunges onto a step or small platform.

Tendon Stretch: Stand with both feet on a step or a phone book, with your heels extending beyond the edge of the step. You may want to hold onto something to keep your balance as you shift your weight toward your heels and gently stretch the muscles and tendons in the back your lower leg.

Towel Lift: Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Bend your left knee and put your left foot flat on the floor. Place a towel around your right ankle. Grasping the ends of the towel, use it to pull your right leg up. Keep your right leg straight and keep your buttocks on the floor as you do so. Hold the stretch for several seconds; then lower your leg to the floor. Repeat with the left leg.

"V" Stretch: Sit on the floor and place your legs out in front of you in a "V" shape. Turn your torso to the right and place your hands on the floor -- one hand on either side of your right thigh. Roll your left hip and your left toes inward, so that the inside of your left foot is resting on the floor and the toes of your left foot are pointing toward your right leg. You should feel a stretch in the inner side of your left thigh. Release the stretch, and then repeat the exercise in the opposite direction, with your hands next to your left thigh and your torso turned to the left.

Knee Hug: Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Cross your right leg over your left, with your right knee bent. Hug your right leg to your chest. After putting your right leg back on the floor, cross your left leg over and repeat the hug.

Quad Stretch: Stand behind a chair with your left hand on the back of the chair to help you maintain your balance. Bend your right knee, raise your right foot up behind you, and grasp the right foot with your right hand. Gently pull upward on the foot until it reaches the buttocks. Hold it there for several seconds. You should feel a stretch in the large muscle at the front of your thigh. (Do not arch your back as you do this exercise.) Place your right foot back on the floor, and repeat the stretch with the left foot.

Crouch: Stand in front of a stable chair and hold your arms straight out in front of you (parallel to the floor). Gradually begin to sit down -- but stop before your buttocks touch the chair. Your weight should be on your heels; your arms should help you maintain your balance. Stand up again slowly and repeat. Rest, then do another two sets.

Towel Scrunch: Sit on a chair and place your bare feet on the floor. Pretend you have a towel under your toes; draw the towel in toward your heels by scrunching your toes. Then reverse the exercise by using your toes to push the imaginary towel out and away from the heel. Do this ten times with each foot.

Towel Scoop: Sit on a chair and place your bare feet on the floor. Use the outer part of your foot to scoop the imaginary towel in toward your arches. Then use the inner part of your foot to smooth the towel back out. Do this ten times with each foot.

All this stretching may have you feeling like a workout, and it's important to take care of your feet while exercising, too. Continue to the next page to learn more.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Protect Your Feet While Exercising

Years ago, no one thought of walking as "real" exercise. Now we know that it's not just a good workout, it's one of the best fitness activities for the feet and for the whole body, and it's a good way to protect your feet from the injuries that can occur with more strenuous exercise.

Many national health organizations, including the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports; the Centers for Disease Control; the American College of Sports Medicine; The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have issued fitness guidelines praising the benefits of moderate exercise and specifically recommending walking.

First, however, it's important to say a few words about running -- what most people used to think of as "real" exercise -- and the feet. If you're a runner, with each stride you take, you place pressure on the joints of your foot equal to three to four times your normal body weight. That's quite a shock even for healthy feet. For people who already have bone or joint problems, running is even more harmful. And the impact of your feet pounding the pavement intensifies the pressure your shoes exert on foot problems such as bunions, hammertoes, corns, injured toenails, or bruised heels.

The Benefits of Walking

Walking aids weight loss. An average-weight person burns close to 100 calories a mile while walking, about the same amount per mile you would burn running. Your metabolism, or calorie burning, not only speeds up during the time you're actually walking, your body continues to burn fat at a higher-than-usual rate for up to six hours after you have completed your workout.

But walking improves your overall health in an even more important way: If you do it briskly (at a rate of between three and five miles per hour) and continuously for at least 20 to 30 minutes, it becomes an aerobic exercise. An exercise is aerobic if you can do it rhythmically and continuously and at a brisk enough pace to force your heart and lungs to work harder to supply your major muscles with oxygen. By forcing your cardiovascular system to pump blood and oxygen continuously throughout your body, aerobic exercise stimulates and strengthens the heart, lungs, and muscles.

It also promotes circulation and, when done on a regular basis, helps to control blood cholesterol levels, which in turn can help keep your arteries clear and healthy. The result is that by engaging in a regular aerobic exercise program, you'll be less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, or heart attack. Many studies have shown that people who briskly walk for 30 minutes or more most days of the week reduce their risk of heart attack significantly.

There's more: A walking routine can help you stop smoking. It reduces the craving for nicotine and helps to counteract the sluggish feeling many people have when they first give up cigarettes. It can improve your lung capacity, which is especially important for asthmatics, and can even help to relieve constipation. (Asthmatics and other individuals with significant health problems, however, should be sure to talk to their doctor before beginning any exercise program.) Some studies have even indicated that a fitness walking program can play a part in helping to prevent certain types of cancer.

But in addition to all these great incentives, regular walking is good specifically for your feet. It strengthens the foot muscles and conditions them so that if you do subject them to unusual strain, they're less likely to be injured or to ache afterward. Because walking continuously moves joints without placing them under great pressure, it is often recommended as a good way for people with foot-joint problems -- including arthritis, gout, and bunions -- to get some exercise.

Also, because walking is what's called a "weight-bearing exercise" -- the demands of the exercise are increased by gravity because you're toting around your own weight -- it strengthens the bones in your feet, lessening the chance of fracture and helping to prevent severe bone problems such as osteoporosis. A study at Washington University in St. Louis showed that postmenopausal women actually increased their bone mass through a regular walking routine.

Getting Started

A walking program, or any other fitness program, should be embarked upon gradually, especially if you've never been very active. Plunging head first -- or feet first -- into a long, vigorous walk after months or years of inactivity will result not in fitness or weight loss, but pain.

Begin a walking routine very modestly and, over weeks and months, slowly increase its intensity. You might start out by walking for 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and gradually add to both the length and frequency of your walks so that, after the first three or four months, you are walking for 45 minutes a day, five days a week. The latter schedule -- if you walk at a pace of at least three miles an hour -- should produce all the aerobic benefits mentioned in the first part of this page. But even if you can never walk this far or this fast, you will still improve the strength of foot muscles and bones (and your overall health) by walking.

To prevent injury, be sure to do stretches and other light exercises (such as those recommended on the foot stretches page) before and after your walk.

There are three main styles of walking: slow (nonaerobic) walking, fitness (aerobic) walking, and something called race walking, which is that funny-looking style you've seen at the Olympics.

Race walking is, indeed, a sport and is characterized by straight legs (no bending at the knees), swiveling hips, pumping arms bent at the elbows, and speeds as high as seven or eight miles an hour. It should be attempted only by people who are already in very good physical condition. You do not, however, need to become a race walker to achieve fitness through walking. And if you are an average fitness walker, you don't need to use wrist and ankle weights while you walk in order to increase the difficulty of your workouts. They're not necessary for aerobic fitness, and if your bones and muscles can't hold up under the added strain, you may create new injuries and other lasting problems for yourself.

Even veteran walkers can sometimes overdo it. While you're out walking, pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. You should never be so short of breath that you can't hold a conversation. If you feel pain in any part of your foot or leg, stop -- you may have strained a muscle or injured yourself in some other way, or you may be becoming dehydrated and need fluids.

To decrease the likelihood that you will overdo a walking routine on impulse -- and to increase your chances of getting help for injuries if you do -- walk with a partner or join a walking club. To find out if there's a club in your area, call your local YMCA or YWCA, inquire at health clubs, or look for notices posted in schools, libraries, and grocery stores. Many shopping malls also sponsor walking groups that walk inside the mall either before the stores open or after they close.

A few final cautions for certain readers: Never begin any fitness program without consulting a doctor if you:

  • are older than 50 and not accustomed to regular exercise.
  • are significantly overweight.
  • have a history of heart trouble or high blood pressure.
  • have arthritis or another bone or joint problem.
  • have a medical condition, such as diabetes, that needs every day attention.
  • are on a prescription drug that might interfere with perspiration.

Many of these people are actually among those who can benefit most from walking, but a doctor should help them choose the length and intensity of their walking routines.

Now you know how to protect your feet while exercising, but have you ever thought about protecting them while you're just standing around? Continue to the next page to learn more.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Protect Your Feet While Standing

When done for long periods of time, even an activity as simple as standing can lead to pain in your feet. So you need to know how to protect your feet when you're stuck standing for hours on end, especially on a hard surface.

Sometimes you simply can't get off your feet, because your job requires you to stand or walk a lot or because you're stuck in an area where there isn't a place to sit down. In the latter situation -- for instance, if you're sightseeing or shopping all day -- do whatever you can to temporarily relieve the pressure on each foot. Walk as much as you can rather that standing still; wiggle your toes; shift back and forth from one foot to another; stand on one foot while lifting the other slightly off the ground and rotating the ankle.

If you do a lot of walking or standing on the job, keep two pairs of shoes at the office, one with a medium heel and one pair of flats -- then switch back and forth throughout the day. Each pair of shoes will require you to use a different set of foot muscles, so this way your whole foot will get exercise. (You'll also relieve the pressure that each pair may exert on different parts of your feet, helping to prevent calluses and corns and relieving bunion pain.)

However, make sure both pairs of shoes are comfortable, because a single hour of standing still in uncomfortable shoes can cause your feet more soreness than a full day's worth of walking in comfortable shoes.

If you stand in one spot throughout your workday, bring in a piece of carpet to stand on (standing on carpet helps to lessen the strain on foot and leg muscles). Periodically slip off your shoes, raise yourself up on tiptoe and come back down again, flex each foot, and wiggle your toes.

While you're standing for several hours, your feet can swell by as much as ten percent. So whenever you do finally get a chance to sit down, try to prop your feet up on something. Elevating them above the level of your hips, even if only for a little while, will help them return to their normal size.

And for even more soothing relief for your feet, try a foot massage. Learn all you need to know on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Administer a Foot Massage

Foot massage is often mentioned as a remedy for many types of foot pain -- from sudden cramps to the ongoing aches of pregnancy. But here's a little secret: You can -- and should -- massage your feet even when they don't hurt. Therefore, everyone should know how to administer a foot massage!

One reason, of course, is just that it feels so good. But massage also makes your feet healthier. It exercises muscles and encourages blood flow. It's great preventive medicine: The stronger and more limber your foot muscles are, the less likely they are to feel tired or to sustain injury when you use them by walking or playing a sport.

And massage is a key recovery tool for those who have recently had foot surgery: By drawing more blood to the feet, massage helps speed the regeneration of tissue and heal damaged muscles.

Without a doubt, massage is most enjoyable if you can get somebody else to massage your feet for you. But that's not always possible. Fortunately, in this section, you'll learn how to be a massage master yourself.

Before any foot massage, relax your foot muscles by warming them up. You can do this simply with a heating pad. Or you might prefer a soak in warm water and Epsom salts (for about 15 minutes). A third option: Hold your feet under running water for ten minutes while you gradually increase, and then gradually decrease, its temperature (be careful not to let the water get too hot).

Now you're ready to begin the massage. Prop one foot up on the other leg's knee and turn the sole toward you. Spread moisturizing lotion or cream on the sole of the foot or on your hands. Using your thumbs, massage the soles in a deep, circular motion. Start at the area just behind your toes and work backward to the heel. Concentrate your efforts on one small area at a time. When you've covered the entire sole, turn your foot over and massage the top, still using your thumbs. Again, work on one spot at a time and cover the whole top of the foot.

After that, it's time to turn your attention to your toes. Give each one a slow, gentle tug; massage it by twisting its sides, working from the base of the toe outward; then wiggle it back and forth. Now repeat the same procedure on the other foot.

Although the above routine will give you a good general massage, here are some little tricks that will further increase circulation and give your feet a tingling feeling:

  • Pinch along the outside edges of your foot.
  • Lightly slap the soles with the back of your hand or gently pound the sole with a relaxed fist; follow this with a stroking motion along the length of the sole.
  • Use both hands to twist the foot in opposite directions, wringing it like a sponge.
  • If one spot on your foot is tight and aches, instead of massaging it, just press down hard on the spot with your thumbs, hold for several seconds, then release.
  • You might also try using a cream or rub that contains menthol during your foot massage for a refreshing touch.

Finally, if your feet need rubbing but you don't want to or you can't do it yourself because of arthritis or some other medical condition, you might want to try a foot whirlpool device that will massage your feet for you. (You should avoid strong vibrations, however, if you have a history of blood clots.) These whirlpool devices can usually be purchased in drugstores.

Although nothing is as fabulous as a massage, the right size and style of shoes can make a big difference in how your feet feel. Learn how to be a smart shoe shopper on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Buy the Right Shoes

Believe it or not, one person can have two feet that are slightly different in size and shape. And even if yours seem identically matched, they don't necessarily remain a constant size. Your feet can actually be different sizes at different times of the day. There are also more lasting changes: Most feet gradually widen with age, and sometimes women's feet "grow" (because of muscle relaxation during pregnancy) after the birth of a child.

Whatever the size of your feet (at any given time) it's important to buy the right shoes -- shoes that will fit correctly and offer your feet and ankles the support they need. The following suggestions will help you become a smart shoe shopper.

Shop for shoes in the late afternoon or evening, since that's when your feet are the biggest (they swell during the day). Have the salesperson measure both feet while you're standing up, because your feet expand under the weight of your body. Carefully consider the fit and walking comfort of each pair of shoes you try and keep in mind that "size 8" in three different styles, even from the same manufacturer, can fit your feet differently.

If you have wide feet, always ask (even if the salesperson has measured your feet) if the style you've chosen comes in a wide width. Fortunately, comfortable shoes have become popular -- even stylish -- and shoe manufacturers are waking up to the fact that not everyone has a medium-width foot. Some manufacturers make shoes as wide as triple-E (on a scale of A to E, with AA being the narrowest).

There are two other contributors to your shoe "size" as well: The shape of your foot (how the shoe's "upper" conforms to your foot) and the heel height that is best for you. Because high heels shift body weight onto the front of your feet, heavy people and people with bunions, corns, hammertoes, and the like should opt for lower heels. If you have excessively pronated ("flat") feet, Achilles tendinitis, short calf muscles, or knee problems, however, shoes with a moderate heel may be more comfortable for you, because they lessen the pull on already-overstretched tendons and muscles.

Once you know your size, you can begin to select shoes that will be more comfortable. However, give your feet a break and avoid the six foot-foiling shoe styles discussed here:

  • Stiletto heels, or any other heel that is higher than three inches, redistributes your body weight so that 90 percent of it is on the front of your feet. This extraordinary pressure can create calluses on the ball of the foot and increase the pain of bunions, hammertoes, and corns. It also strains the muscles and tendons in the arch of the foot. And because these heels tend to have narrow points on the ground, they make maintaining your balance quite a challenge and add to the danger of falling or turning and spraining your ankle.
  • Pointy-toe shoes squeeze the toes together, causing uncomfortable calluses and corns. Pointy shoes can also put pressure on ingrown toenails and bunions and can increase the likelihood of hammertoes.
  • Flats can be a problem not just for people with arch and Achilles tendon problems, but for anyone who wears them exclusively. Over time, your foot gets used to being pronated (flattened) and you may develop arch pain and tendinitis. Flats can be the staple of your shoe wardrobe, but alternate them with shoes that have a moderate heel.
  • Mules generally have a high heel, and so you're likely to have all the same problems as those mentioned above, when too much pressure is placed on the front of the foot. But what distinguishes this style from others is the lack of heel support, increasing your chances of injury if your foot turns on the heel or slips out of the shoe.
  • Platform shoes, popular in the 1970s, unfortunately come back in style periodically. Like high heels, they are so unstable that you can't help but periodically turn your ankle, possibly causing muscle strain, a sprain, or even a fracture.
  • Old shoes with worn-down heels or traction, flattened insoles, stretched-out uppers, or unraveling stitching can cause you to slip, can strain foot muscles, and can lead to ankle sprains.

With all this in mind, now it's time to look for a new pair of shoes. Most people think that trying on shoes is about how the shoes feel on your feet. That's true. Certainly, if they don't feel good, you don't want them. But you should evaluate shoes based on several more-specific factors:

  • The toe box, or area around your toes, should be roomy enough for your toes to rest comfortably. Too much room can allow feet to slide inside shoes, causing calluses and other irritation. The more common problem is that the toe box is too tight. If you have wide feet, the toe box is probably your biggest shoe problem. There should also be room in front of the toes, at least 3/8" to 1/2" between your longest toe and the front of the shoe when you are standing. And there should be room above your toes to prevent the shoe from rubbing against them, causing corns. To test the above criteria, make sure you can wiggle your toes inside the toe box when standing.
  • A shoe's "upper" -- the material on the top of it -- should conform to the shape of your foot. It should provide support but also "give" when your foot moves. Look for an upper made of a material that is nonirritating and porous, allowing air into the shoe. Leather is more likely than vinyl to have these characteristics. (Polish leather shoes frequently to help the uppers stay soft and supple.)
  • The shoe should provide ample cushioning to absorb shock on foot bones and muscles each time you take a step. You need such cushioning in three key areas: the arch; the front, where the ball of the foot rests; and the heel, which normally supports 25 percent of your body weight. If the insole material is also absorbent, it will help relieve heat inside shoes and prevent rashes and the spread of infection.
  • Soles should provide adequate traction to prevent slipping on any surfaces where you expect to be wearing the shoes.
  • Heels should ideally provide slight elevation (between 3/4" and 1") for the foot, whether there's an actual heel or just a sole that's thicker toward the back of the shoe. The counter -- the part of the shoe that curves around the back of your heel -- should be stiff enough to prevent ankle strains and sprains. The back of your foot should fit snugly into the heel of the shoe, not slide around inside it.

Two more general tips: If your two feet are different sizes, choose shoes that fit the bigger foot. (You can pad or add support inserts to the other shoe.) And never buy shoes that are too stiff or too tight with the expectation that you will "break them in." You're likely to suffer much longer than you expected.

Although all this means that you must be a sophisticated and patient shoe shopper, the good news is that many fashionable shoes currently on the market meet all of these qualifications, and many even resemble athletic shoes in design.

This is especially good news for the 59 percent of American women who wear high-heeled shoes every day. As consumers have become more health conscious, shoe manufacturers have given new attention to developing good-looking shoes (even with heels) that won't hurt your feet.

Selecting the right athletic shoe for the type of sport or exercise you enjoy is an even more specific task. Get some pointers on this process on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Pick Athletic Shoes

When you pick athletic shoes to wear while playing sports or exercising, you are looking for the same attributes as with regular shoes: good traction; cushioning inside the shoe; a soft, porous upper; a firm, snug-fitting heel; a roomy toe box; and overall comfort.

But while these qualities are preferable in regular shoes, they are essential in athletic shoes; the absence of any one can cause pain and even injury.

You must also consider the activity you plan to engage in while wearing the shoes. Basic sneakers may be fine for playing Sunday-afternoon softball or standing in your driveway shooting hoops, but they will not adequately support your feet for more lengthy and strenuous aerobic activities like running or fitness walking. You can find additional information about selecting shoes for specific sports and activities, as well as lists of recommended shoes by activity, at the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine Web site.

Running shoes tend to have especially good traction to prevent slipping, as well as very thick soles to soften the blow delivered to your feet every time they land hard on the ground. You need those features for running.

You don't need them for a walking routine, although you do need a shoe that's sturdier than most sneakers or tennis shoes. Fortunately, because walking has become such a popular fitness exercise in recent years, you can now find a large selection of walking shoes in most shoe and department stores. A good pair will cost you, but it will be worth it.

Consider these tips specifically for choosing walking shoes:

  • The upper of a good walking shoe will be sturdier than that of a regular shoe, but more flexible than that of a running shoe. This is necessary because a walking stride requires more foot flexibility than a running stride.
  • The depth of a walking shoe's tread should also be greater than that of a regular shoe, but less than that of a running shoe in order to provide the traction necessary for a smooth yet stable walking stride. One reason not to do a walking routine in running shoes is that the traction of the latter is so deep it can make you jam your feet (causing toe injuries) and even stumble while walking. Also, the thick soles and stiff uppers of running shoes can make them too heavy and uncomfortable to wear while you are walking.
  • Shoes that have a reinforced toe will help prevent toe injuries and help the toe box of the shoe remain sturdy longer. Most walking shoes will have a slightly raised toe, which helps your foot move more comfortably in the conventional "rocking" motion of a walking stride.
  • Don't assume that you'll buy walking shoes in the same size as your everyday shoes. Take into account the thickness of the sock you expect to wear while walking (and you should wear thick, absorbent socks). It is best to bring the socks along and put them on when you are trying on walking shoes. This way, you won't have to guess at how much room to leave for the socks. Also remember that your feet will probably swell as you walk. It may be helpful to actually do some walking around before you shop for the shoes, to give your feet a chance to swell a bit.
  • A porous upper and an absorbent inner lining are essential in helping to prevent rashes and infection. They can also help your feet to stay cooler, drier, and more comfortable as you walk. You might also want to look for shoes that have a removable, absorbent insole to keep your feet drier and less likely to fall prey to rashes and infections.
  • The sole area under the heel should be slightly thicker than it is under the rest of the shoe, elevating your heel 1/2" to 3/4" above the ball of your foot; this elevation will help prevent tendon and arch strain. Make sure that the heel "collar" (the part above the heel counter) is firm-fitting but well-padded to prevent blisters and that the insole under the heel is well-padded. Inner heel padding is especially important if you plan to walk on a hard surface like a street or sidewalk.
  • Keep in mind that if you plan to do a lot of walking on uneven, rocky terrain, you will need walking shoes that provide more protection and stability. Ask the salesperson to point out styles designed for trail and off-trail walkers.
  • Worn-down shoes are a simple but common cause of pain and injury. So no matter what type of shoes you wear or activity you do, if you exercise regularly, it's a good idea to buy new athletic shoes every four to six months or whenever the tread wears down.

Beyond shoes, there are some additional foot products you may find essential to keeping your feet in top form. Learn how to purchase these foot-care products on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Buy Foot-Care Products

If you've never shopped for a foot-care item and you go into any large drugstore, you may be amazed at how many options you have. It's easier than ever to find such products, but harder than ever to know how to choose among them. Here's the bottom line on how to buy foot-care products based on what you'll find on the market today:

For foot comfort and support: Some insoles offer only a thin, generically shaped cushion of support, while others are designed to fit a particular shoe style (such as women's high heels or men's work shoes) or to provide extra support or padding in specific areas -- for instance, those with more cushioning at the heel provide back support as well as foot relief. As styles vary, though, so does price. Other items you can purchase include specially shaped padding to place around bunions, corns, and hurt toes; lamb's wool or moleskin to fashion your own padding; foam arch-support inserts and heel pads; and rubber heel cups.

For calluses: The only callus products that really help get rid of thick, painful calluses -- and that are safe -- are cushioning products, pumice stones or other buffing products, footbath products, and moisturizing creams. Skip the "callus removers" (medicated pads) and "callus trimmers." The former contain salicylic acid, which can burn not just the callused area but the more sensitive skin around it, and the latter actually has a blade (you should never cut a callus).

For corns: "Corn removers" also contain salicylic acid, but because corns are generally more painful than calluses, many people prefer to remove them with these liquids, creams, or medicated pads. If you do so, first place doughnut-shaped padding around the corn to protect the surrounding skin. "Corn files" -- to file away the corn, as you would file your nails -- are rarely effective, and you can hurt yourself if you use one too roughly.

For ingrown toenails: Over-the-counter products don't actually change the position or growth of the nail; they just temporarily stop the pain by softening the skin around the nail while it grows out. An antiseptic applied daily helps prevent infection, which is the biggest danger with an ingrown nail (the area where the nail has grown into the skin is a wound and is therefore vulnerable to infection).

For warts: Wart-remover solutions and medicated pads contain salicylic acid and are quite effective in making warts disappear -- but use them very carefully so that you don't apply the treatment to healthy skin. If you're using a solution, put a doughnut-shaped pad or a layer of petroleum jelly around the wart to protect healthy skin before you apply the wart treatment.

For athlete's foot and other fungal infections: It's in this category that you'll probably find the widest selection of brand names in a variety of formulations, including powders, ointments, sprays, liquid solutions, and creams. While the ingredients in these products vary somewhat, most of them contain tolnaftate or undecylenate. You might look for one that also contains silicone powder to absorb the moisture common to fungal infections.

For dry skin: Most moisturizing creams contain the same ingredients: vegetable oils, mineral oils, and lanolin. You can also buy soaps or footbath products with ingredients that not only soften but also disinfect your feet. To treat scaly, itchy, dry skin, look for products that contain lactic acid (10%).

For sunburn: If your feet sunburn easily (and most do), try using a "sports" sunscreen, which should not only have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 but also be waterproof, in case your feet get wet. And be sure to reapply every two hours or after you've been swimming or in water.

There are some foot-care situations where even the best products won't get the job done. If you're in a lot of pain or have a foot problem that won't seem to go away, you should consult a doctor. Learn how to find a podiatrist on the next page.

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

How to Find a Podiatrist

Although there are lots of stretches, exercises and foot-care products you can use to keep your feet in good shape (as this article has discussed), with almost any foot problem there are some circumstances in which certain individuals should find a podiatrist rather than attempting to self-treat.

Seeing a doctor is definitely the best course of action if you are diabetic or have circulation problems, as well as troubles with your feet. Likewise, if you are under the continuing care of a physician for another reason -- such as pregnancy, problems associated with aging, significant overweight, or high blood pressure -- or if you have recently had surgery, you would do well to discuss your foot pain, and the best treatment for it, with your doctor.

Some foot problems should never be treated with home remedies; instead, you should immediately see your doctor or, in some cases, go to a hospital emergency room. These serious situations include:

  • fracture
  • foreign body embedded in the foot
  • severe ankle sprain
  • dog, snake, or other animal bite
  • pinched nerve
  • psoriasis or another serious skin disorder on the foot (in this case, see a dermatologist)
  • deformities of children's feet, such as club foot or webbed or overlapping toes
  • foot problems that occur in conjunction with a serious disease (for instance, Kaposi's sarcoma: lesions on the skin throughout the body that are often associated with the HIV virus)
  • any lump inside the foot that appears mysteriously (which could be a tumor)
  • unexplained pain, swelling, and tenderness around a bone (which could be a sign of osteomyelitis, a very serious bone infection, or osteosarcoma, bone cancer)

Aside from these specific situations, your best general guidelines as to when to see a doctor are the extent and the duration of your discomfort. Extreme pain is a sign that something is seriously wrong, and, even if you believe you know how to treat it, you should consult an expert to be sure you've pinpointed the exact cause of the pain.

And if you follow the advice given for your problem and it still doesn't go away -- if pain, itching, swelling, discoloration, or any other symptom of the problem persists -- see a podiatrist.

Podiatrists, doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating foot problems, have the letters "DPM," which stand for Doctor of Podiatric Medicine, after their name. Some podiatrists have a narrower focus in their practice and treat just sports injuries to the foot. For information about this specialty, consult the American Academy of Pediatric Sports Medicine.

When choosing a podiatrist, you will want to consider all the same factors you do in choosing any other doctor. Try to speak with other patients to find out about their experiences. When you meet the doctor for the first time, ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel that he or she understands your problem. Also, ask about his or her hospital affiliations and experience in treating your particular problem. To locate a board-certified podiatrist in your area, ask for recommendations from a major hospital, your state Department of Health, or the American Podiatric Medical Association. The latter has a toll-free hotline, 800-FOOTCARE, just for this purpose.

When you use the preventive care strategies outlined in this article, choose your shoes wisely, and know when a doctor's advice is warranted, you're well on the way to having a long, healthy relationship with your feet.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.

Suzanne M. Levine, DPM, was a contributing writer to this article.