Our feet haul us through thousands of steps per day. Yet we cram them into pointy pumps, pound them on the pavement, and often tend to them last when it comes to self-care.

A 2014 survey shows that 8 out of 10 Americans have experienced a foot problem — defined as everything from an ingrown toenail to chronic foot pain. And depending on how long that foot problem lasts, it could potentially impact one’s overall quality of life and health. If you’ve got foot pain or even a minor skin irritation, you’re more likely to shirk exercise, for example.

Essentially, if your feet fall behind, so do you.

“They keep us ambulatory,” says podiatrist Michael J. Trepal, the vice president for academic affairs and dean at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. “People unable to move about suffer numerous physical, psychological, and social afflictions as a direct or indirect result of foot dysfunction.”

Even if you’re known among your friends as having dainty Cinderella feet, or the tall gal who jokingly refers to her feet as skis, foot health is critical. “It is not simply how they look but how they work that matters most,” Trepal says.

Learn more about the proper soles, hygiene, and other lifestyle choices to give your feet the support they’ve been giving you.

Be a good friend to your feet by avoiding these harmful habits:

Foot health 101

  1. Don’t wear too-tight shoes.
  2. Don’t share shoes.
  3. Don’t share pedicure utensils with your pals.
  4. Don’t hide discolored nails with polish. Let them breathe and treat the underlying issue.
  5. Don’t shave calluses.
  6. Don’t perform “DIY surgery” on an ingrown nail.
  7. Do try the Legs-Up-the-Wall yoga pose after a long day or a hard workout.
  8. Do give yourself a foot massage or book a reflexology session.
  9. Do roll a tennis ball under your feet.
  10. Do soothe irritation with a vinegar foot soak.

If you’re wondering if socks in bed is okay, as a hygiene thing or for general foot health, here’s the answer to your burning question: Yes, it’s OK to wear socks to bed! “They’re not a problem unless they are overly tight and constricting,” Trepal says of nighttime socks. “Of course, they should be changed daily.” But do keep in mind that chronically cold tootsies could be a sign of an underlying condition.

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Many people have one foot that’s larger than the other, and if this is true for you, remember to fit your shoes to your larger foot. Shoe fit comes first when buying. Don’t rely on a pretty pair to stretch or the idea of “breaking them in” around the house.

The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society has these guidelines for proper shoe fit:

Perfect shoe fit

  1. The ball of your foot should fit comfortably in the widest part of the shoe.
  2. You should have enough depth so that your toes don’t rub the tops.
  3. Stand up with the shoes on and make sure you have a half inch (about the width of your finger) between your longest toe and the front of the shoe.
  4. Walk around in the shoes and make sure you don’t experience any rubbing or slipping.

If you’re wondering about recent footwear trends, Trepal says cloth kickers, like cotton slip-ons or canvas sneakers, are fine. Just don’t wear them for running, hiking, or activities that require foot protection.

As for the minimalist running shoe craze, you don’t want to switch too fast. These shoes are intended to mimic barefoot running by encouraging a forefoot strike (the front of the foot hitting the ground first) rather than the heel strike that built-up or cushioned shoes encourage. A recent study shows this foot strike change can make some runners more efficient, but transitioning too fast from traditional to minimalist shoes could cause calf or shin pain.

Things to do

  • Don’t ditch your regular sneakers.
  • Go for a few short runs a week in minimalist shoes and see how you adapt.
  • Increase your usage of minimalist sneakers over time.

Wear your heels like they’re worth millions — sparingly

We might love the way heels elongate our legs and make us feel powerful, but when we wear them, we sacrifice our health. 52 of the bones in the human body are actually in our feet and ankles. High heels, which tip us forward, change the natural position of the foot in relation to the ankle.

Research shows that this sets off a chain reaction up through the legs and lower spine, which could lead to chronic knee, hip, or back pain. If you’re not willing to part with your heels, choose sensible ones and wear them sparingly. “If they must be worn,” Trepal says, “find a shoe with as broad a heel as possible to increase surface area contact between the shoe and the ground.”

Always inspect your shoes

No matter what types of shoes are in your closet, you need to inspect them regularly for wear and tear.

The “good shoes” checklist

  1. 1. Replace your running shoes every 300 miles.
  2. Nice flats or boots can usually be fixed, but watch for cracking on the upper part, softening in the soles, and damage to toe boxes.
  3. Check high heels for the same concerns, as well as for exposed nails, an indicator you need a new heel lift.
  4. Check sandals for loose or broken straps.
  5. Repair, recycle, or toss out when appropriate.

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What’s the best way to tackle rough skin and calluses?

We brush our teeth and scrub our pits, but we often dismiss the toe part of head-to-toe hygiene. Trepal notes three rules: “Wear proper fitting shoes, wash daily, and limit conditions of excessive moisture content in shoes.”

“Corns and calluses are areas of thickened skin resulting from abnormal pressure or rubbing,” Trepal says. “They are not the problem but rather the result of abnormal foot structure or function.”

Bad shoes will cause

  • corns
  • calluses
  • blisters
  • ingrown toenails
  • other sources of irritation

He recommends using a pumice stone and skin softeners if the toughened skin bothers you. But Trepal doesn’t recommend trendy foot peels or removing calluses with callus shavers. Never do this and don’t let your pedicurist do it either. This can cause serious damage to your foot, especially if you have diabetes or poor circulation.

But remember, treating the symptom isn’t going to fix the underlying cause. Rough and thickened skin around the foot comes as a result of poor shoe fit. Pro-tip: When it comes to callus removal, keep it simple and avoid gadgets. For extreme cases, head to the podiatrist.

What about the unavoidable blisters?

If you’re a runner, a gym rat, or you like to buy new shoes (who doesn’t?), you’re probably no stranger to the blister. “Large blisters may be popped if done so with a clean instrument,” Trepal says. “They should never be unroofed. Following puncture, apply a topical antiseptic and cover with a bandage to protect.”

Pro tip: To prevent ingrown toenails, cut nails straight across. Do not round the edges. If you have a painful ingrown nail, don’t perform “DIY surgery” on it. Leave that to the professionals.

How do you get rid of foot odor?

Bathing daily and taking the time to dry the skin between your toes afterwards will help prevent odor, and bacterial and fungal infections like athlete’s foot. Pro-tip: If you do end up with the dreaded itch, try a Listerine soak.

Our eyes might be the windows to our souls, but our soles are often the windows to our overall health. “Feet tend to mirror the body as folks age,” Trepal says. “We see things such as decreased circulation, thinning of skin, brittle bones, muscle atrophy, arthritis, etc. Many of these conditions can initially manifest in the foot and ankle.”

Keep an eye on your feet for changes, pain, irritation, and anything else. Again, be mindful of what you put on your feet.

“Younger people will often sacrifice pain and function for style,” Trepal says of shoes. “As people age, there seems to be a shift toward comfort and function over style.” Don’t wait for pain and discomfort to catch up to you later in life. Feet come in all shapes and sizes — and literally all walks of life — but if you’re experiencing foot pain that doesn’t go away or an issue that’s interfering with your daily activities, see a podiatrist and take care of your tappers now.


Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her MS in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.