I go to the gym almost every day of the week to lift weights and do cardio. Going to the gym is something I started doing years ago when I realized that, as difficult as it can be with the demands of my career and personal life, it makes me feel better. Years ago, I noticed that the first few weeks of January always seem to deliver a gym that is more crowded than usual. Filled with people committing to their New Year's fitness resolutions, the gym becomes uncharacteristically full, often causing me to have to interrupt or adapt my workout to accommodate the increased number of people at the gym. I used to refer to this time as "The Resolutionary War". I thought of myself as "doing battle" with the new early-morning gym devotees. I would joke that this war, unlike the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, was short; usually over within 3-4 weeks. I had always assumed that this because of some lack of commitment or staying-power on the part of these resolutionaries. However, in recent years, I've noticed that this rapid end correlates to a higher number of gym and fitness-related injuries seen at our office and suddenly, I made the connection. Many of these folks lose The Resolutionary War because they're injured in battle. If you are among the masses of well-intentioned Americans joining a gym or vowing to make use of exercise equipment purchased in the past, it's important to be prepared to undertake your commitment safely so as to avoid injury. The New York State Podiatric Medical Association (NYSPMA) of which Dr. Kantor and I are members, uses January's annual resolution season as a springboard for reminding the public of the importance of foot health and safety when beginning and maintaining an effective exercise program. To that end, let's go over a few things.
First and foremost, let's establish one basic rule: Foot pain is never normal and should be treated by a trained specialist. If you're having pain in your feet, starting a new fitness program should be undertaken only under the guidance and supervision of your foot and ankle specialist.
According to a study done at the University of Scranton, one third of New Year's resolvers make weight loss their primary goal, and about 15% aim to begin an exercise program. Why are there so many resolutionaries? Perhaps it's because we live in a culture in which 2 out of 3 Americans are overweight. A staggering 35% of Americans are obese, with more than 6% qualifying for the distinction of being "extremely obese". With rising obesity comes an increases in diabetes, heart disease and other related illnesses. Exercise, along with diet, is key to maintaining a healthy weight but in order to exercise, you have to have strong healthy feet.
With the average American man taking just over 7,100 steps a day and the average American woman taking about 5,200 steps a day, you might not be surprised to learn that the average New Yorker well exceeds those numbers by nearly double those amounts. That's why it's so important to wear properly fitting shoes when out and about during the day and sneakers that are appropriate for your foot type when exercising. It's recommended to go shopping for shoes and sneakers later in the day because that's when our feet are most fatigued and swollen. After purchasing new shoes or sneakers, it's important to get used to them. Ideally, you would wear them while standing and walking in your home for about 30 minutes to an hour that evening. That way, if there is a problem with the fit, you will feel it and can exchange or return them. Avoid those with a tight fit with the hopes of breaking them in. A looser shoe is preferable to a tighter one. Shoes and sneakers with laces give the best fit, which is especially important for people with different sized feet or foot deformities like bunions and hammertoes. The widest part of the shoe should fit the widest part of the foot, particularly by the ball of the foot.
Okay, so now that you have the proper shoe gear, you want to warm up your feet.
What did he say? Warm up my feet??
Yes. Your feet, like the rest of your body, need to be warmed up and stretched before you give them a workout. Here are a few simple foot exercises that can be done at home or at the gym, before you work out.
Toe Points - While standing, do toe raises, toe points and toe curls. Hold each position for five seconds and repeat ten times. This is a perfect way to help alleviate toe cramps and strengthen calf muscles.
Toe Squeezes - Place a foam toe separator between your toes and squeeze for five seconds. Repeat ten times. This is a good strengthening exercise for people who suffer from hammertoes or toe cramps.
Roll Your Feet - Applying light pressure and rolling a golf ball under the ball of your foot for approximately two minutes creates an instant massage for the bottom of the foot. This exercise is perfect for people who suffer from plantar fasciitis (heel pain syndrome), cramps or arch pain (and it feels great!) If a golf ball is not readily available, any type of small ball will work just as well.
Towel Scoop - Place your gym towel on the floor and pick it up by only using your toes. Repeat this exercise five to ten times. Try this if you have hammertoes, toe cramps, pain in the ball of your foot, or for overall strengthening.
Another useful thing to do is to perform a foot massage on your own feet. This not only helps to release tension in your feet, but also increases circulation and maintains the health of the skin on your feet. The first step to a perfect foot massage is to be sure that you are sitting comfortably and then simply lift one foot up and lay it across your opposite thigh, in your lap, to begin. Apply a generous amount of emollient-enriched skin lotion or Vitamin E cream to hydrate the skin. This not only moisturizes your foot, but also allows your hands to move smoothly. This provides friction which helps warm the surface of the skin and helps in the absorption of the nutrient rich cream.
Here's how to massage your feet. (Or, better yet, have someone do it for you!)
Warm-Up - To begin stimulating circulation and warming up your foot, hold the foot in your hands. Starting at the top of the foot, begin a long, slow stroking motion with your thumbs, from the tips of the toes, down your sole to your heel and up to your ankle. Retrace your strokes back to the toes and repeat 3-5 times or until the foot feels warm.
Ankle Rotations - To loosen the ankle joint and relax your feet, cup the foot under the back portion of the heel in order to brace the foot and leg. Grip the foot with the other hand and turn it slowly at the ankle five times in each direction.
Toe Stretch - Grasp the foot at the arch. With the other hand, starting with the big toe, hold the toe with your thumb and index finger and firmly pull the toe, slowly moving and squeezing your fingers up the sides of the toe. Repeat this movement twice on each toe.
Arch Release - To help release tension in your foot's arch, hold the heel of the foot and use the other hand to apply pressure. Slide the heel of your hand along the arch from the ball of the foot toward the base of the ankle and back up the sole of the foot. Repeat five times.
Cool Down - End your foot massage with the same technique used in the warm-up. Then, remove all excess lotion that may be left between your toes with soap and water and dry thoroughly.
As you can see, like any good soldier, you need to be ready before you go into battle. If you plan to take on The Resolutionary War you really ought to be prepared. It will keep you free from injury and give you the best chance possible to win and meet your fitness goals.