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Exercise feet with fallen arches

Question: I have just started walking again after several years of inactivity, but I have been experiencing problems with pains in my arches as well as cramps and numbness in my toes. The discomfort gradually disappears when I stop exercising, but, when I start again, it's back.

My doctor gave my feet a brief check and told me I'm just developing fallen arches. What are fallen arches? What can be done about the problem? Should I keep walking?

Answer: Explaining fallen arches requires this brief anatomy lesson. The foot is a wonderfully strong and durable structure as well as a highly efficient shock absorber. It consists of 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and 26 bones. All these parts fit together precisely to form the arch of the foot.

Anchoring this arch is a very strong ligament that extends from the ball of the foot to the heel. This membrane, called the planter fascia, is somewhat elastic and allows the arch to depress but not too far. Also, running under the foot are four layers of muscles that help support the arch as well as allow us to point our feet down and curl our toes.

Some people are born with a bone structure that forms a low arch, or their arch may have fallen as a result of injury or disease. Others have normal arches when there is no weight on them, but, when they stand, their arches tend to flatten because the planter fascia has been overstretched and the arch support muscles weakened.

This deterioration is often caused by obesity, shoes that cramp, deform and torture the feet and by jobs that require standing for long periods of time.

The pain from fallen arches usually occurs when the bones of the arch push down on the supporting membrane and muscles. In addition to the pain, being "flat-footed" and not having much shock absorbency causes the feet to fatigue easily and can lead to ankle, knee and bunion problems.

If you have sagging arches (or simply weak feet from inactivity or a touch of arthritis), you can strengthen them with exercise. In addition, be sure that you are walking in a good-quality, properly fitted pair of shoes.

Here are two exercises that can be very helpful. Both should be done three or four times a day.

Exercise one: Lay a bath towel on the floor. Place a weight on one end of the towel (such as a book). Stand on the other end and, by curling your toes, pull the weight toward you. Increase the weight as your muscles strengthen.

Exercise two: Place your hands on the back of a chair for balance and rise up on your toes, lifting your heel off the floor as far as possible. Hold the position for a second. Repeat 10 times.

Also, keep walking as much as you can. This is the best exercise for your feet. If your foot problem persists, ask your doctor to recommend a foot specialist.

It's very important to take care of your feet. They have a lot of work to do.

For example, the average adult performing routine daily activities takes about 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day. Over a lifetime, these daily steps can add up to about 115,000 miles, more than four times the circumference of the globe.

Patrick J. Bird, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, draws on a database of more than 3,800 medical, health and fitness journals in preparing answers to questions in his column. Write with questions to Dr. Bird, College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

See the Keeping Fit Web page at http://www.hhp.ufl.edu/keeping

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