Are Your Shoes Fitting Differently Than They Did Before the Pandemic? Here's Why That Might Be Happening
The pandemic has changed the way we do so many things—from how we socialize to how we shop for groceries. For many of us, it's also changed the way we work. If your job allowed for it, you probably worked from home at some point since March 2020. Maybe you still are working from home, at least on some type of hybrid schedule. Maybe your company has even switched to completely remote, and you'll never have to go into the office again.
Eighth grade science teacher Carolina Safar was one of those whose job became temporarily virtual during the pandemic. In March 2020, she went from teaching in a classroom to teaching from her living room behind her computer screen. She didn't want to sit at her computer desk all day, however, so Safar decided to stand while instructing her students.
Not long after, she realized that not only did her job change—her feet changed, too.
"I did start to notice a few months in that my feet would hurt after the long day of standing in the same spot, but I kept figuring it was better than sitting and pushing through," she tells Health. As she taught from home, Safar was almost always barefoot. When she wasn't, she was wearing house slippers.
When it came time to return to school in person in January 2021, Safar put on the work and dress shoes she had stowed away for the past year. But her shoes weren't fitting the way they did before the pandemic.
"I noticed shoes felt much tighter," she says. "And when I went to look for new shoes, I had to size up about half a size."
Why would your feet change during the pandemic?
Safar's story is just one example of a larger trend that Elizabeth Cody, MD, assistant attending orthopedic surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle surgery at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery, has been seeing since the pandemic started: foot changes in people who have been walking around without shoes more so than ever.
"A lot of people think walking barefoot shouldn't be a problem, but actually walking barefoot can exacerbate a number of foot problems," Dr. Cody tells Health. Among them are plantar fasciitis, foot arthritis, tendinitis, a collapsed arch, a bunion, or hammer toe. And some of these problems may cause you to have to go up a size or two, as Safar experienced.
Here's how Dr. Cody explains the phenomenon: As you age, it's normal for your foot ligaments to stretch out and your tendons to degenerate based on the stress you put on your feet. The more stress you put on your feet, the faster that wear-and-tear process is—and no longer wearing supportive shoes puts more stress on your feet.
Not everyone who's gone barefoot since the pandemic began will experience foot changes. But if they do, it isn't unusual—especially if you spend a lot of time on your feet and were already prone to certain foot issues.
Pre-pandemic, you might have had foot problems you kept at bay by regularly wearing shoes and orthotics, which are custom shoe inserts that address foot health issues. But without them—and by walking barefoot on surfaces like hardwood floors and tiles—your foot issues may have reappeared and become more pronounced, podiatrist Ami Sheth, DPM, who practices at Foot and Ankle Associates in Los Gatos, California, and is a representative of the American Podiatric Medical Association, tells Health.
Another reason for a change in your feet during the pandemic: your activity level picked up. "There are some people who just did more during the pandemic on their feet than they ever were doing because they were running around and taking care of their kids or they were exercising more," Dr. Sheth says.
Are the foot changes reversible?
That depends on what changes you've experienced. If your issue was an in-grown toenail or tendinitis (aka, inflammation of a tendon in your foot), you can address it and undo the change. But if the structure of your foot shifted (like a worsened bunion or collapsed arch), you're probably stuck with it. You can ease the symptoms, for example, by treating any pain. Yet you likely won't be able to alter the shape of your foot. Instead, you'll have to accommodate your foot's structural change.
In other words, as you prepare to go back into the office, you might have to find shoes that fit your changed foot (more on that later).
Should you wear shoes around the house?
Just because you're not at the office doesn't mean you're walking around any less. That's something Dr. Sheth empathizes to her patients: You're most likely walking around at home more than you realize.
"Most of the people that are just at home are probably doing more work on their feet than I am at the office here because mine is more structured: I get up, I walk to a room, I sit down, I get up, I walk, I sit down," Dr. Sheth says. "Whereas at home, I'm willing to bet there's a lot more multitasking going on. There's a lot more running around that people just don't realize. 'Just let me throw in this load of laundry real quick, I'll be right back.' 'On my way from point A to point B, I'm just going to grab this.' People are doing a lot more moving around than they've been used to."
That doesn't mean you have to wear something on your feet at all times, though. Dr. Sheth recommends keeping track of when your activity peaks during the day and making sure you have shoes on during that time. At the end of the workday, if you're not active, it's totally fine to kick off your shoes. But especially during the workday, Dr. Sheth says that wearing "anything is better than nothing."
What type of shoe should you wear at home?
Generally, a shoe that feels comfortable, is supportive, and doesn't bend too easily tends to be the better type of shoe for a majority of people, according to Dr. Cody. A supportive house slipper or thick-cushioned sandal can do the trick. Some of the brands Dr. Sheth recommends are Vionics, Birkenstocks, Taos, and Aetrex.
If you stand all day as you work from home, consider wearing a shoe that's not only supportive but also shock absorbent. Dr. Sheth suggests wearing orthotic inserts if you'd normally stick them in the shoes you wore to the office. At home, though, you can put the inserts into something less formal, like a running shoe.
Maybe you've gone barefoot the last year and a half and haven't noticed any foot changes or pain. If that's you and you really prefer going barefoot, then Dr. Cody says you can most likely keep doing what you're doing.
When should you see a doctor for your foot concerns?
To figure out if you need medical attention for a change or pain in your foot, you need to first get to know your feet. "Take a look at your feet, and if something doesn't look right, don't just ignore it," Dr. Sheth says. "Call your podiatrist if there's any issues."
Dr. Sheth also recommends that people who are vulnerable to foot problems, like those with diabetes or poor blood flow, get checked too. Many of her patients who are vulnerable to foot problems are also considered vulnerable to COVID-19, so they were hesitant to go into the office. As a result in some cases, what was just a callus became a wound, or missed nail care appointments turned into an in-grown toenail.
What if your foot problems have actually gotten better over the course of the pandemic?
There's another subset of people that Dr. Cody has seen since the pandemic: those whose foot problems have subsided. Now, she says, "they're nervous that if they go back to the office, their problems will come back."
That's because the shoes most people wear to work are typically tighter, less comfortable, and less supportive than any sneaker or shoe you're more likely to wear while not at work. As physical workplaces reopen, Dr. Cody says she's been consulting with patients who want to prevent their pre-pandemic foot issues from cropping up again. She recommends looking at the shoes you wore to work before you switched to virtual work and noting the changes you need in a new shoe.
"For one person, that might mean finding wider shoes, for someone else it might mean finding a show with a thicker sole…. Interestingly, a little bit of a heel can sometimes help their foot problem," Dr. Cody says. "I'm not talking a stiletto, just a small heel, like an inch or so."
Finally, make sure you're physically ready to return to your preferred type of work shoe; Dr. Sheth is looking at you, high-heel wearers. That's because the muscles you had from wearing heels on the regular pre-pandemic will probably need to be strengthened again. You might also need more stability than you did two years ago, until those muscles get stronger.
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