In our quest for better movement, we will take baby steps to reverse the adaptions that most of our bodies have made. Last week we discussed how chronic sitting (or any chronic position or movement) creates physical changes in our bodies on multiple levels. We determined that giving our bodies a wider variety of movements during the course of our day (including our sitting postures) is the first step to getting our bodies to be a little more flexible and a little less painful. The second step then is to address our feet. Our feet have lost their mobility. We need to understand why this is important and then take some simple steps in order to get some mobility back.
Our bodies perform within a dynamic continuum between mobility and stability. Every movement we make is a constant dance between these two concepts. Simply put: stability is the ability to resist an undesired movement. Mobility is the ability to produce a desired movement. These seemingly opposite concepts are actually inextricably linked in every movement involved in the human body. Every time we produce a movement, no matter how simple, we are using our entire body to do it; some muscle systems are producing the movement, while others are stabilizing the body in order to produce it safely and successfully. The interplay between stability and mobility is constantly shifting and changing as we move through space. One theory in the study of this interplay is that the joints line up providing alternating functions. In other words, a very simplified version, from the base up, would look like this:
The more the foot can move, the more the body can maintain stability in the knee, mobility in the hip, and so on. The lack of mobility in both foot and hip joints can create instability in the knee, which greatly contributes to the knee pain that is common in many adults. With a mobile foot, more variation is possible in the positioning of the ankle, knee, hip and pelvis, helping us to recruit our entire body for greater ease of movement without injury.
The problem is that our feet are no longer very mobile, even though they have a huge capacity to be! There are 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in the human foot and ankle. Our ancestors walked around with their feet directly connected to the ground, over varied terrain with varied degrees of incline. When exposed to such variety of surfaces, you can imagine that all of those structures were probably pretty fluid. Fast forward to today: the modern foot is normally confined to pretty tight quarters in our shoes, walking over the same types of flat, even surfaces with relatively little incline. Compare the endless number of joint contortions and micromovements available on a barefoot hike through the woods versus the relatively few afforded us by a walk from our office desk to the restroom in high heels. We can apply what we learned from biomechanist Katy Bowman about adaptation and sitting in the last post. In “Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement”, Bowman explains that just as our bodies adapt to chronic sitting, so, too, do they adapt to the chronic lack of dynamic movement in our feet. Constant immobility makes our feet stiff, as they adapt to the limited range of motion.
The muscles in the toes and in between the bones of the foot eventually atrophy, and fascial adhesions contribute to a lack of proprioception. Going back to our stability/mobility continuum, it is easy to see how this might negatively impact our alignment, creating imbalances further up the anatomical system. To complicate matters further, the body is rarely in perfect symmetry, which explains why one knee might experience a different pattern of “wear” than the other. Bowman likens our alignment to the alignment of a car. She writes, “Good wheel alignment allows the individual parts of the car the freedom to create the intended movements of the driver without causing damage to the car. When wheel alignment is off, the behavior of one wheel can result in premature wear to itself or cause damage to the car elsewhere.” Her analogy is a simplified explanation of what is going on in the human body as well. Proper alignment starts with mobile feet.
So how do we mobilize our feet a little more? As I have mentioned many times before, we need to start slowly. Most of our feet have been in shoes walking over flat surfaces for decades so we cannot just jump into barefoot hiking over varied terrain right away. A very good start is to find a patch of grass (with no broken glass, burrs, fire ants or dog poop), take our shoes off and walk around on it for a few minutes. This feels very grounding. For when we are indoors, we can walk on a cobblestone mat. I made a very inexpensive one out of a plastic boot tray and large smooth river rocks, but they can be purchased as well.
In choosing the mat, make sure to choose larger rocks to start and gradually progress to smaller, rougher ones (video here).
Rolling the foot over a small textured foam roller can be helpful as well. I use a stability board and bosu ball, which provide more of a full body activation, but I focus on the grip of my feet. Lastly, I have recently started using a very small ball and I use one foot at a time to roll it around in all planes of movement, with control. I use all five of these, alternating, while I’m at my standing desk to provide some fun for my feet while I work on reading and writing.
Since most footwear is higher in the heel than in the toe box, our foot is often in some degree of plantar flexion (toes pointed position), however slight. Women wearing high heels provide an exaggerate example of this, but almost all footwear has a positive heel-to-toe drop. Since this posture keeps our calf muscles in constant tension, even if slight, another big step in mobilizing the foot is stretching the calf. Bowman suggests
getting a small half foam roller to use for this purpose but a rolled up towel will work as well. The key is to place the ball of one foot on it, lining up the outside of the foot so it’s straight (her video here). Then with the other foot, take a step forward so the foot on the roller gets the calf stretch. You can do this on different rocks during a hike or any time you encounter an elevated spot in the terrain. My personal favorite is allowing my heel to drop down over a stair – I believe that doing this stretch ultimately healed my plantar fasciitis a couple of years ago. Incorporating calf stretching consistently throughout the day is a huge step toward mobilizing the foot and ankle.
The muscular adaptations created by chronic sitting and positive heeled footwear can prevent our bodies from producing stable pain-free movement. Mobilizing our bodies in an informed way is the first step toward reversing this process. Now that we are sitting in more varied ways and mobilizing our feet, the next step is to tackle proper walking and the all-important psoas muscle. Stay tuned 🙂