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12 step guide to keeping your feet healthy

Summer's here and your toes are on show. Make sure they look good and - more importantly - feel good. By Julia Molony

Keeping your feet in tip-toe condition is easy once you know how. Here's everything you need to know and unfortunately, that means losing the high heels - at least for the most part.

1. Bin the flip flops

Good footwear is the first principle of foot health, advises podiatrist Aoife Reilly, who says that when choosing shoes, stability is key. "The shoe shouldn't be too easily bent," and should provide good support around the arch of your foot. That means "there is a bit of an incline there that follows the natural contours of your foot". At the front of the shoe, look for "a wide, deep toe box, so that there is no compression on the toes, and so that your heel is supported as well".

It's worth noting that flip-flops provide none of those features. Worse still, the movement required to walk without support causes a twisting motion of the heel which can cause dry skin and cracked heels. "Opt for similar characteristics in shoes both in summer and winter months," she says.

High heels, sadly, aren't much better and should be limited to occasional wear if possible. "The lower the heel the better," says Aoife, who advises a well-fitting high heel that doesn't compress the toes.

2. Walk, walk, walk

Modern sedentary lifestyles are taking their toll on our feet, according to podiatrists, who report seeing clients suffering stiff and tight muscles as a result. There are more than 100 muscles ligaments and tendons in the feet and keeping these strong will prevent problems later in life. Try to fit in a quick walk at lunch-time and in the evening as this helps loosen up muscles and gets the blood flowing to legs. People often complain of cold feet - and sometimes this is caused by a condition known as Raynauds - but experts say that more often your tootsies are cold just from sitting all day.

3. Be vigilant if you have diabetes

People with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are more vulnerable to foot problems such as heel cracks and ulcerations, which can have serious and far-reaching consequences.

Neuropathy, the loss of sensation in the extremities, is a common complication of diabetes. "If someone has a stone in their shoe or a pebble, because they have reduced sensation they might not notice that. Over time that damages the skin a cut can occur. That's an open site for bacteria and infection," says Aoife Reilly. "People with diabetes can have reduced healing. So you can imagine those symptoms can exacerbate quite quickly." She adds that prevention is better than cure."

Regular screening with a podiatrist is recommended, but patients can play their part in daily prevention. "Check your feet, dry them well. Perhaps place a mirror around the floor area, pop your feet up and check that there are no cuts or damaged skin, or maybe family members can check as well."

4. Eat your way to healthy feet

Diet has a major impact on our feet and is especially important for people who have, or are at increased risk of developing pre-existing conditions. That means keeping blood sugars well controlled for those who have diabetes.

Another common foot condition is gout, which is linked to excess consumption of alcohol, red meat and sugar. Uric acid crystals build up within the joint and leave the skin around the joint red, tender and swollen. The patient is unable to even touch the skin of the toe and jumps at the lightest touch.

5. Watch your weight

Our feet bear the load of our entire body weight so if we are carrying extra pounds our feet tend to flatten out as a result and this puts a greater strain on the muscles and tendons around our feet, particularly the posterior tibial tendon and the plantar fascia which are easily inflamed from excess loading.

If you are suffering from pain or tenderness around the leg or foot then this can be rectified with orthotics - a supportive device worn on the foot or in the shoe. Your podiatrist should also be able to provide you with an exercise plan that will help.

6. At the first sign of problems see a podiatrist

Don't accept foot pain as normal. It's not and requires professional attention. It's recommended that patients with pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes have their feet checked every three months with a podiatrist who will do a full neurological and vascular check. Patients who have a family history of heart disease should also undergo vascular checks as podiatrists commonly pick up irregular heart beats and clots in the legs.

7. Start as you mean to go on

The 26 bones in the feet are not fully formed, even when a child is as old as eight years of age, according to the College of Podiatrists in the UK. This is why the early years are crucial. Wearing the wrong shoes can have lasting consequences.

Children's shoes should always be professionally fitted and it's also worth checking the size of your little one's socks to make sure they are not too tight. Look for unusual wear and tear on their shoes, particularly around the heel of the shoe or bulging around the toe box of the shoe, as this could indicate a problem. The best shoes for children have laces or velcro straps to hold the foot in place. Avoid thin soled shoes.

8. Skip the gel pedi

For the prettiest feet, gel nails are a no-no, and even normal polish should be used sparingly. "Nail polish causes oxygen deprivation in nails so you are at increased risk of developing a fungal nail infection," says Aoife. "Gel nails put pressure on the nail plate which can weaken the integrity of the nail plate, making it a bit more susceptible to picking up a fungal nail infection.

"This is exacerbated by the environment underneath that additional nail plate," says Aoife. "It's going to be warm, it's going to be moist, it's going to be the type of conditions in which a fungus would thrive."

She also advises sticking to breathable footwear and cotton-rich socks, especially in summer time.

9. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise

Several of the most common foot problems such as callouses and cracked heels are caused by dry skin and daily moisturising is the key to preventing these problems or nipping them in the bud, especially for people with diabetes who are at risk of developing ulcerations.

"People who are naturally prone to dry skin or those with diabetes should look for something with a high urea content," says Aoife. "Urea is naturally produced in the body but it helps break down the callous formation."

10. Go for the kindest cut

To avoid developing an ingrown toenail "cut your nails straight across and don't cut too low at the edge or down the side," advises the College of Podiatrists in the UK. "The corner of the nail should be visible above the skin. Also, cut them after a bath or shower when the nail is much softer."

11. Good hygiene is key too

"Avoid moist, soggy feet by letting rotating your footwear so each pair has a chance to dry out thoroughly, advises the College of Podiatrists. "Keep your feet clean and dry and in the summer and wear open-toed sandals to let air get to your toes as much as possible."

12. Give your feet a workout

Keen runners and people who do a lot of sport often develop aches, strains and injuries such as planter fasciitis or cramps in the arch of your foot. They should see a podiatrist for advice and gait analysis.

Prescription insoles may help address the problem, but there are self-help measures worth trying too, says Aoife, who suggests "using a firm ball, a tennis ball or a golf ball" to ease the pain.

"Sit on a straight backed chair, both feet flat on the floor using one of your feet roll a firm ball place your foot on top of it, radiating it around the heel the arch and the forefoot and increase and decrease the pressure as needed for two minutes on each or shorter intervals of 30 seconds on each area.

"Repeat that three to four times on each foot."

A frozen water bottle can be used instead of a golf ball for an additional anti-inflammatory effect.

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