How do you stand? Completely at ease, with a spring in your step...or down at heel, with corns, bunions and fallen arches? Sheila Purcell finds out how to put your best foot forward
They are masterpieces of design, built to withstand huge pressures and carry us an average 70,000 miles in a lifetime. Neglect them for years on end, however, and most feet start complaining. The trouble may stem from ill-fitting shoes, an old injury or simply genetics - if either of your parents had weak arches or hammer toes, they have probably passed them on to you.
And when your job puts the squeeze on your feet - particularly if you stand all day - other aspects of your health are bound to suffer. Teachers are often surprised when the chiropractor or osteopath they consult over an aching back recommends a chiropodist, but one small weakness can throw the whole body out of aligment. Osteopath Jonathan Barnes explains: "A problem like a fallen arch in one foot can shorten the leg. The difference may be as little as six millimetres, but it's enough to make the pelvis tilt and encourage an S-shaped spine, which causes low back and neck pain."
Carol Bonny, an adviser at the Scholl footcare clinic in Salisbury, says:
"Many of our clients are teachers and college lecturers. They are on their feet all day, every day, and starting to notice problems."
Those problems include:
* Corns, calluses, hard skin and bun-ions - caused by pressure from shoes;
* Athlete's foot - suffered by sports teachers wearing trainers all day;
* Swollen, aching feet and ankles - from standing for hours;
* Aches and pains in the feet, ankles, legs, back and even the neck - the result of prolonged pressure and wearing high heels.
Carol says that more and more health-conscious younger clients are choosing comfortable, supportive shoes which won't ruin their feet. She warns that women who won't be parted from their three-inch high heels risk dire results, including weakened arches, strained muscles, tight Achilles tendons, ingrowing toenails, retracted toes, corns and bunions.
Cultivating healthy feet is a matter of moderation and saving those stilettos for special occasions, says Anne Locke, podiatry (chiropody) services manager for Southampton Community Health Services NHS Trust. "A heel no higher than an inch-and-a-half is probably ideal. But height doesn't matter so much - as long as you have a wide, stable heel, and not a very small one."
A chiropodist will probably prescribe support insoles to re-align stretched or weakened bones and muscles of the foot, and a regime of strengthening exercises. More short-term measures can include treating weary feet to a pedicure and massage, available at most major beauty salons, and Scholl clinics, or simply pampering them at home with refreshing lotions and potions available at leading stores. Boots and the Body Shop are two of the best.
Buying the right shoes and socks can make a real difference too. "Buy well-fitting shoes in soft leather, not synthetics, wide and deep enough, and longer than your longest toe," says Anne Locke. Laces, straps or Velcro help to keep shoes on without having to screw up your toes. Trainers are comfortable but get hot and airless, so avoid wearing them all the time. Changing shoes halfway through the day is often a tonic.
Make sure that socks or tights do not not constrict your toes, and choose natural fibres like wool and cotton. Nails should be trimmed to the top of your toe, following the natural curve. Gently file corners, but don't cut or file down the sides as this encourages ingrowing toenails. Keep skin supple with a nourishing cream - a cheap hand-cream is fine.
Rest swollen feet or ankles higher than your head after bathing in cool water and drying thoroughly. Don't endure persistent aches and pains - ask your GP to recommend a state registered chiropodist.
And go barefoot whenever possible. "Feet have the same potential range of movement as our hands. They were never meant to be encased in shoes all the time," says Dorset chiropodist Gillian Lockie.
Other factors to watch include your posture, your weight - excess pounds obviously increase the pressure on feet - and the way you walk. Regular exercise such as swimming, brisk walking and cycling will keep feet and legs strong and mobile, as well as stimulating circulation.
Dance teacher Valerie Farrant takes students through a feet warm-up routine at the start of every class. "We work through the foot from toe to heel - the way dancers are taught to land at the end of a jump to avoid injury," says Valerie.
She recommends these simple exercises:
* Stand up straight and point your toes, lifting the heel off the floor and coming down through the foot. Repeat at least 10 times.
* Circle the feet 10 times clockwise and ten times anti-clockwise.
* Pick up a pencil with your bare toes to work all the muscles of the foot.
HOW TO TREAT YOUR FEET
Much more than just a foot massage, this holistic treatment works on the principle that each part of the body has a corresponding reflex point on the soles of the feet. Massaging the relevant point loosens tension, releases toxins and unblocks energy. For qualified practitioners, send an SAE to the Association of Reflexologists, 27 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3XX. An hour's session costs around Pounds 20 plus.
Tester: Ursula Reed, RE co-ordinator at Winton Primary School, Bournemouth, saw reflexologist Julie Toy.
Verdict: "Quite relaxing - I enjoyed it. Julie spotted that I had back problems, and a lot going on in my head - it was two days before the start of term - and suggested several ways to help. I woke up with a bad headache the next day, but it didn't last and I felt quite well afterwards."
Remington's Foot Spa Whirl, price Pounds 44.99 from Boots and leading electrical stores. A Jacuzzi-style footbath described by the makers as the "ultimate indulgence" for feet, with four different massage settings.
Tester: Jane Potts, English faculty head at Hardley School and Sixth Form in Fawley, Hampshire.
Verdict: "I wear high heels and sometimes my feet do ache at the end of the day. This spa made my feet and legs feel a bit wobbly, as if I'd gone for a brisk walk. It was certainly relaxing, but that's probably because it makes you sit down."
Footsie Roller, Pounds 3.50 from Body Shop. Like a small wooden rolling pin with raised edges, this massages and stimulates your foot as you roll it back and forth from toe to heel.
Tester: John Abbott, Hardley School and Sixth Form.
Verdict: "I'm on my feet all day and I always get home feeling very tired. This woke me up by making my feet feel quite invigorated, and made me sit down and relax for a few minutes."
Body Shop Peppermint Foot Lotion, Pounds 1.15. Used with Scholl's five-minute DIY foot and leg massage.
Tester: Sandy Vlahovic, Winton Primary School, Bournemouth.
Verdict: "I found the smell overpowering and would have preferred something more neutral. I would love to have a professional foot massage, but there's no time for pampering during term."