If you are like most people, you probably have weak feet and ankles, but you do not know it. This occurs for two reasons. This post will cover only one of the reasons and the other will be explained in another post. People have a hard time accepting the idea that they could have week feet and ankles. However, the reason and the concept is simple. It is called disuse atrophy. If you have not heard of it, let me explain:
Imagine you broke your arm and had a cast put on it for proper bone healing. This cast will be on for many weeks and does not allow your arm to move. Let’s imagine that while your arm is in the cast you go to the gym and lift the weights. Perhaps your shoulders and forearms get stronger over that time period. However, when the cast is removed from your arm, the end result at your elbow joint is always the same. The muscles associated with moving the elbow joint will be atrophied and weaker. This concept applies to any joint or joints in the body. Assuming you are smart and would like to avoid injury, you would not over-exercise with your arms right after having a cast removed.
What does this have to do with your feet? Well, your feet are designed as dynamic structures. That means that your feet are designed to move, be pliable, and adapt to your environment. Your toes need to be able to bend and your arches need to be able to compress and expand like a spring. The arches are not meant to be immobilized. Instead of being used as dynamic structures, feet are asked to mold around the shape of the shoe they are in. This will be explored further in another post.
The vast majority of shoe designs are very rigid, including sneakers. This means that regardless of how much cushioning they may have, shoes will immobilize feet similar to being in a cast. Shoes are not quite as rigid as a cast and people spend some time out of their shoes, so the effect is not as fast or as obvious. Casts are temporary but people often spend a good portion of their lives in shoes. It does not matter how much you exercise or run. If you exercise in shoes that immobilize your feet, then the end result is the same – disuse atrophy.
Orthotics immobilize feet even more. Over a long period of time, the resulting weakness in the feet leads to a compromise in the integrity of the structures of the foot. This means that eventually feet can become so weak, that they are no longer capable of maintaining their structure. This sometimes shows up as dropped arches or flat feet among other ways. Unfortunately, the current answer for this is to immobilize feet even more by inserting orthotics that lift the arches higher. This just makes the problem worse and a cycle is started.
Often the more rigid a shoe is, the more it is considered a “good” shoe. This is wrong, because it leads to disuse atrophy. This does a disservice to everyone, especially professional athletes and runners. We like to blame concrete, but concrete is not the problem. Your feet and ankles are the base that interfaces with the ground. Wouldn’t you want them to be as strong and as pliable as possible? The best thing you can do for your feet is kick off your shoes and do some activities barefoot. Allow your feet to be dynamic and restore some of the natural pliability to your feet.