Although most of the magic of your feet happens intrinsically, there are some clear visual markers that point out your feet are in healthy condition or not. When you experience pain coming from your knees, hips, lower back or anywhere in your locomotor system, chances are your feet are the culprit. In this article we’ll point out some of the main characteristics of healthy and functional feet, so you know what to look for.

Functional feet

Let’s start by answering this first: “What’s the definition of functional feet?”. Just like any other part of your body, your feet are very adaptable to their environment. Lock them up in tight, heeled shoes every day and they will form in the shape of the shoes. Restricting the blood flow to the toes means cutting them off from circulation. Your locomotor system will balance out restricted movements so you’ll develop gait and compensation patterns accordingly.

In this case your feet are functional, but to what degree? Slowly they’ll lose their original human function of stability, shock absorption, propulsion and sensory role of protection. If the foundation of your physical structure starts to collapse, you cannot expect full health and function further up the chain. In other words, compromised feet show in a compromised physical structure.

Visual characteristics of healthy feet

Let’s say the skin of your feet is smooth as silk thanks to weekly visits to a pedicure. Does that translate into foot health? Not really. You can paint a wall as many times as you like but if the foundation rots, it will eventually come down. If your feet lack callouses naturally, that’s a good sign though. Most baby’s and children’s feet are a great example of how healthy feet should look.

You can visually check your own feet by looking at:

  1. Your toe-spread
  2. The hallux angle
  3. Callousses

Toe spread forward direction

Toe-spread & hallux angle

A wide toe-spread is a clear visual sign your feet are most likely in proper healthy, functional condition. Especially if the big toe isn’t folded inwards (towards 2nd toe) but points forward in a straight line from the heel (hallux angle). A wide toe-spread, means a bigger thus better base of support. With toes spread wide, forces from movement are better distributed, taking pressure away from the ball of the foot.

Shoe shape vs foot shape
Full vs. limited base of support © Lee Saxbee & Dr. Mick Wilkinson

Pay attention to the pinky toe

Besides the big toe, pay attention to your pinky toes as well. They’ve probably been neglected the most. If they’re folded inwards, it will be very hard to activate them. What you can do is let them breathe. The smallest members of the family are likely to be damaged by a lack of ventilation and blood circulation. Hot, humid and cramped is an invitation for fungi.


Thickening of the skin is your foot telling you it gets a sensory overload and suffers from friction or rubbing. Rubbing can also lead to blisters, continuously getting blisters will also result in callouses. Having callouses removed by a pedicure can be helpful. Breathing space for your toes, while training your feet to avoid callouses all together, is even better. Remember that without proper corrective training a pedicure is just an extra recurring bill to pay.

Footwear that celebrates toe freedom

Once your feet get the attention they deserve, then it’s time to move beyond shoes for fashion towards shoes for function. You’ll quickly enter the world of barefoot shoes. A fine contradiction in itself but let’s not get into that. You have to know the current state of your feet to make the transition safely. Common transition issues such as calf pain, ball of foot pain (metatarsal heads) or top of foot pain are the result of overstimulation of an already stressed foot.

If you have compromised feet, switching to barefoot shoes without proper training can stress out your feet even more. Don’t buy into ‘thin and flexible’ just because it sounds healthy, because it might not be healthy for your feet. The one clear thing you should always be looking for in a shoe is toe-freedom. The rest is all negotiable depending on your personal needs.

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