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How do our bodies efficiently distribute our weight? The answer is in the arches of our feet. When those arches are lowered or nonexistent, it changes the way our legs carry the weight.

This puts extra stress on bones, ligaments, and muscles.

Flat feet, or fallen arches, is a condition that affects up to 30 percent of the population.

But it’s not a serious issue for most. A significant portion of people with flat feet don’t experience any symptoms beyond getting fatigued more quickly from standing or walking.

However, with the warmer beach sandals and flip-flop season upon us, this question looms: Can these shoes actually cause your arches to fall? If you do have flat feet, should you leave summer heels in the closet?

A majority of flat feet cases are genetic. Some people are just born with lowered or nonexistent arches. So if you don’t already have flat feet, it’s unlikely that you’ll develop them, no matter what you wear on your feet.

However, severe trauma to the feet — from a bad sports injury or car accident, for example — can cause arches to fall, as can systemic conditions like diabetes.

Interestingly, Dr. Mitchell Shikoff, DPM, FACFAS, vice president of the American Board of Podiatric Medicine, tells us that pregnancy, and the hormones that follow, is a common cause.

“These hormones [which allow the pelvis to widen during childbirth] also cause ligaments in other parts of the body to relax, including the feet, leading to fallen arches. This condition typically does not reverse after pregnancy,” he says.

A night out here and there in unsupportive shoes won’t cause permanent harm — but chronic foot pain can happen when you start to walk around in them all day, every day.

But just because your flat feet don’t hurt, doesn’t mean you should throw on any shoe you’d like — especially if you already have lower than normal arches.

1. Avoid flats

Those totally flat, thong-style sandals might look great on the boardwalk this summer, but they aren’t the best for your feet.

“Almost everyone will want some type of arch support from their footwear,” says Dr. Shikoff. “But if the arch is too pronounced, it can actually cause pain for people with flat feet.”

2. Make sure your shoes have an arch

Ideally, you want a shoe that supports the natural shape of your arch — not too flat, not too high.

You may need to experiment with a few different shoe brands to find one that provides support without digging painfully into your foot.

3. Try inserts, if you don’t want to buy new shoes

If you’re comfortable with your shoe choice but are still experiencing pain, the next step in treatment is to look at inserts. Do some research on the big brands like Dr. Scholl’s and PowerStep to see which models might be best for you.

Pro-tip: Go custom. Custom orthotic inserts will cost a little more than the ones at your neighborhood drugstore, but since they are created from a mold of your foot, they should strike the perfect balance between comfort and support. Check with your local orthopedist or foot and ankle specialist to find out more.

4. Get shoes that are designed for what you’re doing

For the active types, Dr. Shikoff says to make sure you select shoes made for the activities you partake in the most. If you’re a runner, get a good pair of running shoes; if you play tennis, choose comfortable tennis shoes.

If you’re just starting out exercising and aren’t sure what you’ll take to, invest in a pair of cross-trainers. These versatile shoes support your feet for both sports with lateral movement (think football and basketball) and normal running and walking.

5. Love your current shoes? Limit your time standing or walking

What if you’ve already got your heart set on a pair of sandals for a big barbecue or picnic? You’ll probably be fine, even if you have flat feet.

A night out here and there in unsupportive shoes won’t cause permanent harm — but chronic foot pain can happen when you start to walk around in them all day, every day.

Try to limit the amount of time you spend walking or standing, and rest your feet whenever you get a chance.

Pain from fallen arches isn’t limited to your feet

“People with flat feet also get knee pain, both inside the knee and on top of the kneecap. Pain in the shins, hips, and even lower back are also common symptoms of flat feet — but physicians treating pain in these areas don’t always realize that the source is all the way down at the patient’s feet,” says Dr. Shikoff.

The good news is that most people will see improvement from flat foot pain with simple stretches and releases.

1. Stretch out your hamstrings to keep them loose

Dr. Shikoff advises that stretches involving the back of the leg can be helpful for flat feet, especially the hamstring group, thanks to the interconnected nature of our legs.

Stretching and rolling out your calves and hip flexor muscles can also provide relief. Make sure that you stretch slowly, at an even pace — otherwise, you can actually make your muscles tighter.

“Imagine pulling a rubber band too quickly — it’s going to tense up and want to snap back to its original position,” he said.

Proper technique for stretching involves gently pulling the muscle until you feel tightness, holding it for a few seconds, and then slowly releasing it back to its original position.

2. Roll out the tension to relieve foot pain

One of the more common treatment recommendations, according to Jake Schwind, an NASM-certified personal trainer who specializes in corrective exercise, is to press your foot into a lacrosse ball or tennis ball to relax tension in your plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is the thick, fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot.

Schwind says his personal training clients with lowered arches have seen results from this technique.

The tennis ball technique for foot pain relief:

  1. Step on a lacrosse or tennis ball either barefoot or wearing thin socks.
  2. Slowly put more and more weight on it while rolling the ball around the bottom of your foot.
  3. Roll for 1 minute and then switch to the other foot.
  4. Do this twice a day.
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“Adding physical pressure can provide a bit of release for the plantar fascia. I have my clients with flat feet roll each foot for one minute twice a day (four minutes total) to help release tension on the sole, which in turn can help other areas of the foot/ankle complex,” said Schwind.

A lacrosse ball won’t rebuild your foot arch

Dr. Shikoff says that relaxing the tension won’t treat any built-up inflammation, because the plantar fascia is so dense that it can’t stretch like a normal muscle. Tendinitis in your foot comes from muscle overuse and can cause flat feet, if the damage is severe.

This method may not be a permanent fix that will solve your flat feet problems, but many (this writer included) report that it provides some relief from foot pain.

If the pain in your foot gets better as you move throughout the day…

  • There’s a chance you could have plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue group on the underside of the foot).
  • This condition is a bit more serious than flat feet and may require an oral anti-inflammatory or injections at the site of the inflammation.
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Ultimately, don’t let flat feet, or worrying about flat feet, stop you from enjoying a healthy, active summer. Remember to choose the right footwear, stay mindful of how much you stand and walk, and keep your hamstrings and calves loose.

Raj is a consultant and freelance writer specializing in digital marketing, fitness, and sports. He helps businesses plan, create, and distribute content that generates leads. Raj lives in the Washington, D.C., area where he enjoys basketball and strength training in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.