Our feet are unsung miracles of bones and tissue. Each foot has twenty-six bones and over one hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. Every day, they support (be honest with yourself) any excess weight. They propel us from place to place over many decades. They run for buses, stand doing the washing up, go on tiptoes to reach things. They are remarkable feats of engineering. If you doubt, ye of little faith, just look at robots. Even with all our technological advances, we struggle to make a robot with articulating feet. Feet are amazing.
Yet people are almost ashamed of them. If I observe a woman’s feet during a Pilates class, more often than not they apologise immediately before I have a chance to say a word. In my very unscientific poll, I think they are viewed with significantly more dismay than other parts of the body. Obviously, when it comes to women’s dismay about parts of their body, this is a very competitive field.
When they’re not in class, what do woman do with these marvels of support and mobility? We squash them into unsuitable footwear. The Big Foot Nation study by The College of Podiatry showed the average size of a woman’s foot is now size 6 compared with a size 4 in the 1970’s but women refuse to go bigger because of the social stigma. Now, it is common knowledge that many women have a peculiar relationship with shoes. Often they will fall in love with them because of the way they look, rather than they way they feel. (A male friend said that men would never do that with shoes but they do often do that with women.)
In the wider world the recent controversy over ‘skyscraper’ heels where certain firms insist that women wear high heels to work or the recently reported request from Donald Trump that his female staff should ‘dress like women’ are disturbing on many levels but they have massive implications for women’s health. The simple task of walking a step requires the feet to absorb the shock of all our weight before then springing that weight up to propel us onwards. Dynamic movement throughout the whole leg is delivered most successfully when the foot fully articulates from heel to toe. Tottering about over a ten-hour working day, while these precious structures are perched into an unnatural position that prevents them from moving in the way evolution intended, inevitably leads to contortion and destruction of their delicate balance. Ten thousand steps a day? Not in those shoes.
The deterioration can begin as early as adolescence. Unfortunately any old exercise is not the answer. Jogging with a terrible gait is not to be recommended. Our bodies are a living history of how we have used them. If some muscles have lost focus there will be others that are overworking. When you take a body with imbalances and throw it into any vigorous exercise, the tissues that always work hard will hustle and bustle in their usual way while the weaker structures will continue to be overwhelmed. The result is that the unhappy status quo is reinforced rather then rehabilitated. The more restricted and dysfunctional feet become, the less they are able to trigger the complex array of muscles throughout our body that stabilise or move us. All sorts of aches and pains can then ensue. Back in 1901, when our average life expectancy was forty-eight it probably wasn’t a priority. These days, when it’s currently eighty-one, it needs to be.
So we ignore and mistreat our feet and they start the journey from being soft and malleable, to stiff and painful to the touch, to just painful or numb and restricted all the time. That way lies the old folk’s shuffle where the foot loses any hope of being able to articulate and just gets plonked down flat. This leaves the body with little option but to find forward momentum by hoisting the leg forward from above rather then effectively pushing from below, increasing the pressure though the knees, hips and back.
Taught correctly, Pilates should be about working on improving body integration and developing balanced function. Call me radical but it should start at school. Physical education in schools has very little to do with education. It concentrates almost exclusively on team sports and very little on educating people about how to correctly use their body. If we worked with adolescents to improve and understand how important something as fundamental as their gait is, we could save the NHS millions down the line in hip and knee replacements, back operations and much of the general wear and tear that accumulates through life. This is a call to arms. Or feet in this case.