*I am a barefoot shoe blogger, not a medical professional and this is not a substitute for medical advice. Always seek the advice of a licensed professional if you need care*
I have over 75 minimalist shoe reviews on my blog, but the one thing that piques your interest the most is not shoes. The one question I’m asked over and over is this: HOW did I go from collapsed feet and crooked spine to a strong, functioning body? Great question! I’m just a normal person. Not an athlete. Not certified in anything. I still can’t do anything impressive. And the truth is complicated.
But if I get outside myself for a minute, I see that people are struggling. A few years ago I would have devoured this post, taking notes, and bookmarking all the recommendations. SO many of us are in pain. And maybe the story of a normal person is just what normal people need to hear.
In case you’d like to cut to the chase, I’ve broken this post down to 1. my background, 2. the specific details of my injury, 3. the steps I took to recover, and 4. my favorite exercises.
Table of Contents
Firstly, every body is incredibly unique, so I will start with some background on what I come to the table with.
I’m small, low energy, have low-ish muscle tone, and lax ligaments. These things might never have been an issue for me had I been active my whole life, but I was pretty sedentary as a kid and had a diet high in sugar and low in nutrients (not good for building tissue). I started wearing orthotics for ankle tendinitis at the age of 9, had torticollis at 13, and sprained my ankle at 16. I first remember having back pain at the age of 12 when my class sat on the carpet and I didn’t have a chair to lean on. These relatively small injuries never quite healed and I was plagued with minor complaints (not enough to be heard by a doctor, but enough to make life difficult).
As I got older and life got more complicated I had less and less time to exercise. The weaker I got, the more impossible exercising became. Then I had children, and my body just became more discombobulated.
It’s worth mentioning that I developed symptoms of a connective tissue autioimmune disorder (either Lupus or Mixed Connective Tissue Disorder) in 2016 and have been in a pre-diagnostic state ever since: ie I test positive for antibodies every year and have some symptoms, but it isn’t getting worse.
I also was under intense stress in the years leading up to the main issue with my foot which undoubtedly contributed in many ways to my poor state.
The main inciting event, the reason I ended up finding barefoot shoes, occurred while I was pregnant with my second child.
When I was pregnant with my second child I wore these damned boots to a birthday dinner. Pregnancy hormones combined with naturally lax ligaments set the stage for what suddenly became functional hallux limitus.
My big toe became jammed up underneath the first ray (the bone that connects to the big toe) and when I had weight on my foot it wouldn’t bend. I had full range of motion in the toe when there was no weight on it, hence the “functional” part. This resulted in acute pain while walking. Of course I didn’t know the mechanics of this at the time, I only knew that I was hurting. I hobbled around the rest of my pregnancy and a few weeks after before going to the podiatrist.
My podiatrist put me in thick, stiff shoes and a custom orthotic so that I wouldn’t have to bend my toe while I walked. While this did get me out of acute pain, it did not solve the issue (obvi). I kept waiting for things to get better, but they did not and I could never be without shoes. If I wasn’t wearing them, I crawled on my hands and knees. I wasn’t really ok with this, so I went back to the podiatrist after about 6 months. She ordered an MRI and discovered that I had bone marrow edema (swelling and fluid inside the bone). Because of this, she ordered me off my foot for 6 weeks to let it heal.
What had been a comedy of errors before now turned into a horror show. It’s difficult for me to describe this time of my life. I had a tiny baby, a toddler, and a home business that I managed while my husband was at work. My body was already very weak and I had postpartum depression. In addition, close members of my family were experiencing their own health crises that I needed to help with. I was simply not ok. I like to say that mobility is freedom. Not having mobility? That is captivity.
During this 6 weeks I was in a boot, then a knee scooter, then a cast. All in efforts to get me completely off the foot because supposedly that would get me out of pain. Let’s just take a second to imagine me carrying my baby in my arms while I walked around on my knees to tend to my family’s needs. Somehow, I survived the 6 weeks. But to my dismay the troubles didn’t stop there. Despite all that effort, my foot still hurt SO BADLY. But now I also had severe back pain, ankle pain, and was so weak and messed up I couldn’t remember how to walk.
By this point I had decided not to go back to the podiatrist. I started doing research and peppering anyone I could find with questions. I discovered a Gonstead chiropractor who adjusted external joints and I booked an appointment ASAP. He was the one who properly diagnosed me with functional hallux limitus and told me it was completely fixable. He also was the one who showed me I had scoliosis and kyphosis in an x-ray. For the first time I was being told that something could be done.
Around this time my best friend and soulmate suggested I read Whole Body Barefoot, by Katy Bowman. She sent me a free copy of it on Audible, and I started listening to it right away. That book along with the findings of my chiropractor put an end to my downward spiral. It was all up from there, baby.
Now for the good stuff. This is what you all came for, right? In an effort to make this as succinct as possible, I’ve broken it down into the main steps. At the very end you will find links to videos of my favorite exercises for posture and alignment.
Weren’t expecting a pep talk, were you? We’ll get to the exercises and all that, but the most important thing I have learned about healing is that YOU MUST HAVE THE RIGHT MINDSET. When I read Whole Body Barefoot a fire was ignited inside of me. I would not settle for this, I would not be told what I could and could not do, and I WOULD NOT STOP. My life was changed in a moment, all because I believed I could do it.
While I pivot and readjust frequently, my fundamental mindset is simple: My body is my friend. It has my best interest in mind, and is only responding to the input it’s getting. Changing the input changes my body over time. My job is to get acquainted with my body and learn what input it needs. Because I want to live my best life, this is what I always come back to.
Enthusiasm only gets you so far. The next step was educating myself about the body. You can see my list of suggested resources here, but at the time I didn’t know all of these. I started out by reading several Katy Bowman books, watching lots of Mobility Mastery videos, and in general getting my hands on everything I could find relating to the body. The Body Keeps the Score was another life-altering book for me, and I highly recommend it.
At this time I also completely changed my lifestyle. My education is on-going: I expect to be learning how my body works the rest of my life and I make no claims to having it all figured out. But getting enough sleep, learning to let go of stress, lots of time in nature, and eating a super nutritious diet were key changes I made.
You have to understand that when I first read the Katy Bowman book I was taking about 1,100 steps A DAY. I was VERY limited and in a lot of pain. I believed, but I also wanted to get back to life as soon as possible. Finding the right practitioners were an important part of my journey, and you should always check with a doctor if your pain is persistent or unexplained.
Gonstead chiropractors were key in helping me get my big toe functioning again and in treating my scoliosis. Another PT noticed my hips were incredibly tight and started doing manual therapy, which brought noticeable relief. But my progress was slow. I was still reliant on the chiropractic adjustments, and I still looked incredibly awkward when I walked. At this point it had been a year and a half since my initial injury and I was in near constant pain.
Thanks to the advice of a good PT I started focusing on general movement and blood flow. This really kickstarted things and I noticed a significant decrease in pain by simply moving more. It was around this time that I felt ready to ditch the orthotics and was fully transitioned to minimalist shoes.
After this phase, I hit another point where I felt like I was kind of stalled. I was getting more mobile but I didn’t really feel that much stronger. My physical activity was not quite enough to promote muscle building. I tried yoga and ended up with a lot of joint pain, so I moved to Pilates. I went out on a limb and got a punch card for a local studio, and have never looked back.
I was fortunate to find a studio that is focused on healing and function and not so much on getting washboard abs. It’s a beautiful environment, and the teachers thoughtfully teach to their students’ needs. My own teacher is a bad-ass 69 year old, a living example of dynamic aging.
I had to start out very slow, but I worked hard and over a couple months I noticed that many things in my life were getting easier. I could stand for longer periods of time, my knees weren’t bugging me, I had more energy. My feet also started changing. My arch lifted up off the ground and my toes began to spread as my hips got stronger. It was around this time another truth lit up my brain. If you want your body to get stronger, you must LOAD it.
I learned the value of pushing myself to the point where my body built muscle, but not to the point were I was inflamed and in pain. I looked after my body, resting when I needed and pushing myself once I had recovered. After a lifetime of being sedentary I had somehow become one of “those” people. You know, the ones who actually like to exercise.
5. Gait Happens
As I got stronger my focus shifted. I started working hard on correcting my kyphosis and dealing with the intermittent low back pain. I made a lot of progress with the kyphosis by doing targeted exercises (the photo at the top of the post and below shows this change), but the back pain was persistent. I thought it was because of the scoliosis I had a few years earlier, but the exercises I tried didn’t help.
I decided it was time to try something new (also the covid-19 pandemic stopped my Pilates classes) and I booked a virtual consultation with Gait Happens (you can see more details about that here). Dr. Perez picked up on a whole bunch of stuff in my body and shed light on the issues I was still experiencing. That back pain? Probably not scoliosis (that is practically gone at this point). Instead, it seemed to be an anterior tilt and winging to my pelvis that was shifting me forward and not allowing my glutes to fire properly.
I was both relieved that I had found someone who could help me, but also somewhat disturbed that everything I had done up to this point hadn’t fixed my pelvis. It was a reminder that even though I had made huge strides, the work was far from over and I can’t always do it on my own.
She prescribed me several exercises, and after a short time I noticed changes in my body. New muscles were firing and I felt a noticeable difference in the way I moved. A follow up with Dr. Perez showed that my body was already responding to this new input and I received a new set of exercises as well as ways to build on them.
This brings me to the present day.
6. The Future
If you’ve made it all the way to the end, you might be thinking my life has been something of a marathon the last few years. It sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? And yes, I have worked hard, and yes it’s been years and I still have hard work to do. But it hasn’t really felt like work. Most of the time I’m happy and excited. I rest when I need to. I do what I love. Sometimes I’m frustrated, sometimes I push myself, but this is not a grind. This is my life. I need movement, I love movement, and I don’t distinguish it from the other things that I need and love.
There is no understating the impact that moving more and moving better has had on me. Everything about my life has gotten easier. So if there’s one thing I want you to take from this, it’s that it’s worth it. YOU are worth it.
My Favorite Exercises
For regular content about movement and barefoot shoes, follow me on Instagram. But here is a collection of my favorites.
Lauren Ohayon’s Neck and Shoulders Release – Lauren does an amazing job leading you through tension release and helping you mobilize a stiff upper back. This video is GOLD!
Another Lauren Ohayon flow for inner thigh tension
Gait Happens Breathing exercise for an anterior pelvic tilt