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A (sort of) quick note about arch support and then I promise I’ll shut up about feet and shoes for a minute.  I know, I know, we were all told we needed to have good arch support.  We were also told that marijuana was a gateway drug that would lead to a terrible death by heroin overdose and it turns out that’s just not true for most people.  I’m here to be your counterpoint to the D.A.R.E. officer’s version of the arch support story.

Our feet were designed to support the weight of our bodies.  Our feet are incredibly good at this job.  Our feet actually have three arches to help not only with this job, but to help us run, jump, walk, dance, and play “This Little Piggy Went to Market.”  Actually, I don’t think the arches help much with that, but it’s an important game.  Today, we’re going to focus on the medial and lateral arches, but don’t worry, transverse arch, I still love you.

So, the medial and lateral arches of our feet run the length of our feet.  The medial arch is the one on the inside, and it’s the one we all tend to think of as THE ARCH of our foot, that runs from big toe to heel.   It is the most pronounced and obvious arch.  The lateral arch runs along the outside of our foot, parallel to the medial arch, from pinky toe to heel.  These arches are formed partly by the shape of the bones in them (somewhat wedge shaped), but are largely formed by the muscles of the lower leg which hold them in place and let them relax and contract, using power much like Cupid’s famed bow.  As we put weight on our foot (like when we’re walking), both the medial and the lateral arches should be able to lengthen, then spring back into a contraction as we push off of our toes.  This action is particularly helpful when we run or jump.

Now that we’ve got a basic understanding of how these two arches work, let’s talk about arch support by way of talking about canes. You know how if you had a problem with one leg; say you sprained an ankle or had knee surgery or got a giant, gaping flesh wound on your thigh, you might use a cane for a little while to take some of the pressure off that leg.  The cane, essentially, is a stand-in for some of your leg.  It doesn’t do all the work of your leg, but it lightens the load.  And while that might be really helpful for a period of time, it will also allow the muscles of that leg to atrophy to some degree.  So, if you use a cane for a few days, you might not notice much of a difference from one leg to the other.  However, if you use a cane for a few years, one leg will become significantly stronger than the other and if you then tried to hike a few miles without your cane, you might end up hiking in circles.  Probably not, but there would be a big difference between your legs.  And the leg the cane had been helping out would be noticeably weaker than the other leg.

Arch support in your shoes is like a cane, but for your medial arch.  And specifically, it’s like a cane for the muscles of the lower leg that maintain your medial arch and allow it to function as well as it does.  So, maybe you had a foot, or lower leg, or ankle injury and you needed a little arch support while things were healing.  That’s one thing and I don’t have any problem with that.  However, most people I know, myself included, started wearing shoes with arch support of some sort before they were in high school, with no injuries or weakness to speak of.  Can you imagine if we went around telling 10-year-olds to use canes all day, every day just because one day they might need them?  Arch support in your shoes allows your medial arch (and the muscles of the lower leg that support it) to atrophy, while at the same time, it offloads the work of lengthening and contracting to the lateral arch and the muscles that support it.  So while the medial arch gets weaker and weaker, the lateral arch just gets stronger.  These muscles supporting each of the arches run the entire length of the lower leg.  If the muscles corresponding to the lateral arches are all beefed up like the Hulk, while the muscles corresponding to the medial arches are withering away to nothing, do you think the ankle can perform at its highest potential?  What about the knee?  Do you think those joints are very balanced?  No, me either.  So what happens when you go to walk around without arch support (like when you try to switch to barefoot sandals or just being plain barefoot) is that your medial arch tends to collapse a little, sometimes causing pain and discomfort or at the bare minimum, fatigue.  And that’s not just in the foot, but in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and so on.

So, what’s a whole population of life-long arch supporters to do?  Well, we can stop forcing arch support on our kids, for one.  But we can also work to slowly reduce, then eliminate the arch support in our own lives.  May I please stress the importance of slowly.  If you’d been using a cane for the last 30 years, you wouldn’t go run a marathon without it tomorrow, would you?  Starting with a few minutes to a few hours of barefoot time here and there and working towards as much time as possible over months or years is not only a more pleasant way to rebuild your medial arch strength, but a safer one.  Depending on how long you’ve been wearing shoes with arch support, your bones, and ligaments, and tendons (not only in your feet, but in your whole body, especially your legs) have grown to accommodate that situation.  It will take a long time for them to grow into new shapes and strengths to suit your new, stronger arches.  And (obviously, because I’m the one writing this) Rolfing can help with this transition as well.  Including a session here and there to encourage balance, strength, and flexibility in your feet and legs (sessions 2, 4, and 6 of the 10-series anyone?) can really go a long way in increasing the speed with which you go from support-dependance to freedom.

(I’m going to go ahead and assume you can deduce my opinion on orthotics and shoes with ‘good’ ankle support instead of writing whole separate posts about those things.)

Happy walking!

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