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How Inactivity and Over-Exuberance Wreak Havoc on Our Feet (and What To Do About it)

October 17, 2022

Prolonged periods of inactivity caused by illness, extreme weather or even a pandemic can result in an unexpected increase in foot and ankle issues. The chaos created by COVID-19 did more than throw our lives off balance. For some, stay-put orders resulted in more sedentary lifestyles as they curled up on the couch with their TV and laptops. Others used their new work-from-home status as a green light to jump into action, replacing trips to the gym with exuberant outdoor activity and new exercise equipment. 

The result? An uptick in cases of plantar fasciitis, insertional Achilles tendonitis, arthritic inflammation, and tight calf and gastroc-soleus complex muscles that has continued as we return to our regular routines.

Inactivity’s Effect on Our Feet

Being housebound often translates to more time spent sitting and less time walking and working out. Inactivity weakens foot and ankle muscles while tightening the tendons, calf and gastroc-soleus complex muscles necessary for walking and flexing the ankle.

Inactivity can also lead to picking up a few extra pounds. About 42% of U.S. adults reported undesired weight gain in the first year of the pandemic, with 29 pounds gained on average, a recent survey shows. Weight gain of only a few pounds causes stress and pain to joints while aggravating the plantar fascia. This thick band of tissue connecting the heel to the toes is designed to absorb strains to the foot. The pressure of even a few extra pounds, paired with weak muscles and a tight Achilles tendon, can cause plantar fasciitis, an intensely painful inflammation of this area.

Running into Trouble

Abruptly becoming more active creates its own set of foot-related issues. Learning to navigate new equipment at the gym or hitting the neighborhood walking path with over-exuberance produces its share of strains, sprains and stress fractures. At-home athletics during the pandemic triggered a surge in insertional Achilles tendinitis, which occurs when the Achilles tendon is irritated by sudden and intense changes to activity level. Inflamed tendons and ligaments continue as people ramp up their workout routines and are made worse by wearing ill-fitting or wrong-sized shoes.

Next Steps to Foot Health

To prevent a foot or ankle injury moving forward, start by picking the proper shoeShoes support your arch and protect your foot from injuries, like stubbing your toes. Choose footwear that is comfy, fits snugly and supports your ankle.  Make sure the shoe shape matches your foot shape – including accommodating issues like bunions and hammertoes. Opt for supportive shoes that are spacious around the toes and snug enough that your heel doesn’t slip out.

Here are some other tips to help your feet ease back into shape.

  • Bypass bare feet. Walking barefoot or in skimpy slippers can lead to soft tissue injuries. Instead, create a wardrobe of supportive indoor shoes to wear around the house.
  • Clear the clutter. Tripping over the dog and loose cords, slipping on hardwood floor and stumbling over household clutter can result in painful sprains and fractures. Avoid falls by moving toys, cords, exercise equipment or furniture in to more appropriate spots.
  • Soften your stance. Add gel mats to those places in which you often stand. Hard floors can be hard on feet and ankles. 
  • Take the weight off. Unburden your feet by losing those extra pounds packed on during vacation, the holidays or the pandemic. 

Stretch It Out

If you haven’t been active for a while, begin with a gentle stretching and strengthening program. Here are some easy exercises to improve the range of motion, flexibility and circulation of your ankles, feet and toes. Most of them can be done daily while sitting at your desk.

  • Point and flex your feet, then rotate your ankles in circles to loosen them up.
  • Roll your toes across a tennis ball. Repeat with the ball under your arches.
  • Splay your toes, wiggling them as you stretch and bend them.
  • Try to scrunch or pick up a washcloth with your toes.  

In addition to daily stretches, consider a moderate exercise routine like walking. Pencil in several breaks to stand up from your desk and stretch.

When You Need an Orthopedic Specialist

Don’t tough it out. Severe or continuous ankle or foot pain likely requires a visit to your orthopedic specialist.

  • If it’s a minor strain or sprain, your doctor might prescribe physical therapy and anti-inflammatories.
  • If your foot or ankle is black and blue, very swollen and you can’t immediately stand and put weight on it, it’s important to be evaluated with an X-Ray.
  • If your injuries are significant, you will be referred to an orthopedic surgeon.

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