Experts say that a year of padding around at home, barefoot or in slippers, has weakened the muscles and ligaments in our feet. Now, as sandals weather hits, and we start wearing ‘proper shoes’ again for social events and in workplaces, they say we may be heading for pain and discomfort. Here’s how to fix your lockdown feet.
Why WFH is bad for our feet
Walking barefoot is no bad thing, says postural alignment specialist Caroline Clarke: "Humans are designed to go barefoot; there are 7,000 nerve receptors in our feet which, along with our eyes and ears, help to keep us balanced."
However, pre-lockdown, our foot muscles had grown reliant on the support that shoes provide. Suddenly taking that away can cause pain and inflammation. One common condition is plantar fasciitis – pain in the inside of the heel and the underside of the foot caused by inflammation of the plantar fascia, the ligament that connects your heels to your toes. Roughly one in 10 people will develop the condition in their lifetime – usually between the ages of 40 and 60 – but podiatrist Louise Stuart says that, since the start of lockdown, she has seen an increase in clients with the condition, and other resulting musculoskeletal problems such as knee pain.
Give your feet a workout
Simple exercises can strengthen your feet as we head out more and engage in more exercise, lowering the risk of injury and pain. "My approach to foot health is completely exercise driven," says Clarke. "For me, the core starts at your head and ends at your feet. Our feet are our foundations; they’re our balance point into the ground. If you’re not holding them correctly, this can have a knock-on effect on the rest of your body."
A simple exercise to help with muscular pain in the arch of the foot is to use a tennis ball while sitting or standing. "Put the tennis ball under your foot and just let it roll around. If you put the tennis ball near the front of the foot, wrap the toes around it and lift them up and down. That will start to stretch the muscles in the foot," she says.
Another of Clarke’s exercises is the ‘holding leg stretch’. Lie on your back with one knee bent, and place a belt around the ball of the foot that is elongated. Straighten your leg and flex your toes towards you with the heel down, then raise the leg around three to 12 inches off the ground, with the belt taking the weight of the whole foot.
Strengthen your calf muscles
You might be desperate to squeeze your feet back into your favourite pair of high heels. But Clarke says after a long period out of proper shoes, our calf muscles will have lengthened, meaning they’ll tighten and constrict when we put them back into heels, which can be painful.
She says stretching out the calf muscles can help. Try standing with your back against a wall, with your heels hips-width apart and your feet at ten to two. Keeping your heels, your buttocks, your shoulders and your head on the wall, slide your body up and down the wall by raising your heels off the ground. Make sure you come down through the big toe joint, and don’t bail out through your ankles.
Gradually retrain your feet by wearing heels around the house for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. You could also rethink the type of heel you’re wearing to see if there is a specific one that works for you. "I have to either wear high heels or cowboy boots, because anything between that hurts my feet. Experiment to find out what works," says Clarke.
Swap slippers for sandals
Sales of slippers rocketed in lockdown, but perhaps to the detriment of our foot health. "Occlusive footwear like slippers prevents airflow to the foot, making it sweat. This warm, moist environment can become a breeding ground for fungus," says Stuart. This means fungal conditions, such as athlete’s foot, may have flourished in lockdown. If you’re experiencing symptoms such as powdery dryness on the foot that isn’t responding to normal moisturisers, itchiness between your toes or discoloured nails, Stuart says it is important to seek help from a podiatrist.
Shuffling around all day in poorly designed slippers can also wreak havoc on our posture, as they cause us to grip them by clawing our toes, explains podiatrist John Durkin. "Less support could lead to musculoskeletal issues, bunions, claw toes and possible plantar fascia pain," he says.
If you are still working from home, Stuart suggests swapping to a supportive sandal or open shoe. "It will give your foot more support, and prevent pain later down the line."
Go easy at the gym
"If you don’t walk, it increases the chances of your arteries occluding [blocking] and your circulation deteriorating," says Stuart.
Sitting for prolonged periods also affects balance, leading to a higher risk of falls at home. Durkin says we should be aiming for at least 20 to 30 minutes of walking a day to get the heart rate up, but more is preferable.
Caution is advised for those who are planning to hit the gym after lockdown. According to Durkin, too much exercise too soon can lead to Achilles tendonitis because muscles have become weaker – so ease yourself in gently.
Choose the right shoes
Tight, or poorly fitting, shoes can lead to bunions, ingrown toenails and foot pain. With hot weather on the way, and people stepping back into leather shoes, Durkin expects to see a rise in blisters, hard skin and corns caused by the feet swelling and sweating.
Although not the most fashionable choice, sensible shoes are key to keeping us comfortable as we leave lockdown. "Preferably they should have a small heel. They should be laced or strapped with a rubber sole and as deep a toe box as possible," he says.
You only get one pair
Many of us have put off seeing a GP during Covid, meaning foot-related complaints have been left untreated for more than 12 months.
"I’m seeing a rise in musculoskeletal problems, chronic infections, and ingrown toenails," says Stuart. "Often this starts with knee, or lower limb problems; feet should never be looked at in isolation from the rest of the body."
Do see your doctor if you have concerns, and take care of your feet, which all too often end up as a neglected body part, which can lead to serious health problems later down the line.
The Daily Telegraph