The reason I couldn’t spread my toes is because throughout my life, I’ve squished my feet into shoes that were too tight, mushing my toes together like canned sardines. I never considered the fact that if muscles aren’t allowed to move, they atrophy, losing their capacity to work. That’s exactly what happened.
Just like every other body part, muscles in the feet must be stretched and strengthened to keep them in proper working order. They are the body’s foundation, so if they’re not healthy, they can cause pain, not just in the feet, but farther up the body, into the knees, hips, or back.
Shoe manufacturers know this, so have come up with a variety of ways to support the foot. Some shoes support the arch, some support the ankle or heel, some don’t allow any twist. Lately, however, experts are rethinking the idea of support, realizing that the human foot is engineered very well. The arch acts as a spring which propels your step, reducing the energy needed to walk. Manufacturers now offer free motion shoes that protect the foot, without supporting them, allowing them to work and move naturally.
As a yoga instructor, I’m barefoot throughout the day, five days a week. My feet feel great. They don’t ever feel like they need to be rubbed, like they did when I wore shoes all day, and I can now spread my toes, which means the muscles in them are strong and healthy. I credit this to the fact that when feet are bare, the 20 different muscles in them, are automatically stretched and strengthened.
If you are interested in spending more time barefoot, or wearing shoes that allow free motion, I highly recommend doing specific foot exercises first, to prepare them. There are a number of stretches and strengtheners available. Toe spreaders can also be a tremendous help. They come in a variety of designs and price ranges. If you’re new to them and don’t want to invest much, start with the inexpensive toe spreaders that are used for pedicures.
When you’re ready to make the transition to bare feet or free motion shoes, start with just a few minutes per day to see how you do. Increase the time gradually, going back to your regular shoes if your feet, knees, hips or back begin to hurt. Don’t try to work through the pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop before you damage yourself. Be patient with your feet, and they’ll eventually become stronger and more comfortable. Now that you've checked your own feet to see if you can spread your toes, (I know you have), take a moment to feel grateful for your feet, no matter what condition they’re in. They work hard for you, so make time to take care of them.