Foot Health for Better Ankles, Knees, Hips, and Back (Plus 7 Foot-Strengthening Exercises You Can Do Anywhere)
Honestly, when’s the last time you paid attention to your feet unless they were causing you pain?
Granted, I haven’t extensively polled my friends about their foot care regimens, but it’s easy to surmise that we largely neglect our poor feet. I’m not talking about getting the occasional pedicure or attacking your calluses with one of those terrifying implements that looks like a cheese grater. Cosmetic treatments are all well and good, but they don’t address the health and strength of your feet.
As a society, our feet are suffering. Just look at the market for custom insoles and corrective footwear. One of the most popular videos on the Mark’s Daily Apple YouTube channel is 2 Stretches to Heal Plantar Fasciitis. Last time I checked, it had well over 500,000 views. But it’s not just foot pain that’s a problem. Over a million people receive total hip or total knee replacement each year in the U.S. alone. By age 80, one in ten of us has a bionic knee.1 A recent survey estimated that 577 million worldwide were living with lower back pain, at great personal and economic cost.2
What does this have to do with your feet? Everything.
An agile, pain-free body starts from the ground up. Your feet are the foundation of the lower kinetic chain that comprises the feet, ankles, calves and shins, knees, thighs, hips, pelvis, and spine. Each link in the chain depends on the others to function as intended or the whole system can go awry. When you pronate (lean toward the inside edges of your feet) or supinate (lean toward the outside edges), you can end up with misalignment of the ankles, knees, and pelvis, and improper curvature of the spine. Walking with improper gait due to poor mechanics or pain forces other parts of the kinetic chain to compensate in order to maintain balance and generate motion.
Our ancestors certainly sported strong, highly utile feet by virtue of walking long distances barefoot or minimally shod over a variety of terrains. They probably also had great knees and hips and excellent posture. Like so many things in the modern world, though, we need to take intentional steps, no pun intended, to strengthen our feet and promote proper alignment and function.
Foot Anatomy: A Quick Primer
Human feet are unique in the animal kingdom, setting us apart from even our closest primate relatives. Although you might think your feet are pliable because you can point and flex them, relatively speaking, they’re actually quite stiff. That stiffness is a function of the internal anatomy, and it’s the reason that we can walk upright and run long distances over land on two feet.
Your foot contains two arches. The first is the one you’re familiar with, running longitudinally along the inner edge of your feet. The second is the transverse arch that runs across the top of your foot from side to side. The former gets considerably more attention, but recent analyses suggest that both were equally important in the evolution of anatomically modern human feet.3
Connective tissues support the arches and allow the foot to absorb and store mechanical energy when your foot hits the ground. The foot then acts like a spring, powered by that stored energy. In addition to bones, tendons, and ligaments, the feet also contain muscles called intrinsic foot muscles (IFM). The IFM, along with the fascia, help the foot maintain a proper shape, support the arch, absorb shock, and generate force during locomotion. Common foot problems can arise from issues related to the bones and joints (as with bunions), connective tissues (like plantar fasciitis), or the IFM. Many issues stem from weak arches that collapse.
If you go to a doctor complaining of foot pain, you’re most likely to be told that you need different shoes or “better insoles.” They may even suggest something more invasive, like surgery. In many cases, though, you probably need stronger feet, which you can achieve through simple exercises.
How to Know if Your Feet Are Healthy
Assuming you’re not suffering from something acute like bunions or Morton’s neuroma, the most obvious signs of poor foot health are fallen arches and pronation of the foot. For some folks, flat feet are genetic, but most people with fallen arches and pronation suffer from weakness in the foot.
Stand barefoot in a neutral position with feet hip-width apart. Have a friend get down on the floor and take a picture of your feet and legs from the back. You should be able to draw a straight line from the center of your heel through your ankle, knee, and up to your hip. If your ankle and knee trend inward toward the center of the body, that’s a sure sign that you need to work on strengthening that foot. Another way to check for pronation or its opposite, supination, is to look at the soles of your shoes. The wear pattern should be equally distributed across the center of the heel and ball of the foot area. You shouldn’t see excessive wear on either side.
Pain is another sign, but pain is tricky. Thanks to that kinetic chain, pain in the foot doesn’t definitively signal a foot problem. Often, it stems from a part of the body that isn’t bothering you at all. Just ask a runner who’s experienced back problems due to tight calves or ankle pain thanks to a tipped pelvis. A skilled bodyworker—physiotherapist, personal trainer, or sports massage therapist—can help you pinpoint the root cause.
Finally, you can perform a test:
- Stand barefooted. Hold lightly onto a chair or countertop for support.
- Lift one foot off the ground, then slowly rise onto the ball of your other foot and lower down.
- See if you can perform 10 reps on each side without pain or severe wobbling.
If not, you’d benefit from a foot exercise program.
Exercises to Strengthen Your Feet
Even if you don’t have obvious signs of poor foot health now, it’s a good idea to add a few minutes of daily foot strengthening exercises to your routine. Always better to be proactive. This goes double if you wear high-heeled shoes (stop!). Foot exercises are mandatory if you’re pronating or having pain—once you talk to your doctor or PT, of course.
The good news is that you can do most of these exercises while you brush your teeth or sit through a Zoom meeting. There’s no real protocol here. Pick a few and do ten reps of each to start, working up to a few sets per day. Start sitting if necessary, then progress to standing on two feet, then one foot when possible. Do these exercises barefoot.
7 Foot Exercises You Can Do Anywhere
1. “Short Foot”
This exercise targets the IFM. Sit with feet flat on the ground. Without flexing the toes, work on pulling the big toe toward the heel. When done correctly, your longitudinal arch will “dome.” The movement is subtle. Hold for five seconds, then release.
Once you have mastered the movement and can do it without clawing at the floor with your toes, try it standing.
2. Toe Taps
These are self-explanatory. Just tap your toes, one foot at a time, like you’re impatiently waiting for something.
3. Heel Raises
Low heel raises: raise and hover your heels an inch or so off the ground. Hold for a few seconds before gently lowering.
High heel raises: lift all the way onto the balls of the feet. As you raise up, don’t let your feet collapse toward your big toe. Imagine you’re working in a line toward your pinky toe.
Both exercises can be done sitting or standing. Work up to standing on a single leg, holding on to something for balance if needed. For an even greater range of motion, stand on the edge of a step and let your heel dip below parallel. Concentrate on feeling the muscles in your feet, even though the calves will be doing much of the work.
4. Toe Spreads and Isolations
With your heel on the ground, lift your toes and work on spreading them apart as wide as possible. Try to return them to the floor still spread out.
Next, focus on lifting only your big toe without grabbing the earth with your other toes. Then, keep your big toe on the ground while you lift the others. Once you can do this proficiently, try lifting each toe individually. This is quite challenging for most people, so don’t feel bad if you can’t do it!
5. Single-leg Balance
This one’s also straightforward: stand on one foot. If your balance is poor, start by keeping your opposite big toe on the ground and hold on to something for support. For a more advanced option, stand on a softer surface like a wobble pad or sand.
6. Toe Grabs
Use the toes to pick up objects off the floor. A wadded-up tissue or soft ball about the size of a golf ball works well, but anything small and light will do. Keep your heel on the ground. Try picking up the object with your big toe and adjacent toe, then with only the three middle toes. Don’t worry if your foot cramps, that’s normal.
7. Side Wall Pushes
Stand with your shoulder against a wall. Bend the arm closest to the wall 90 degrees and make a fist like you’re about to start running. Lift the foot that’s farther from the wall so you’re balancing on the inside foot. Now push against the wall using the back of your hand and forearm. You should feel your arch lift and contract automatically.
Work from the Top Down
Just as foot problems can cause problems up the chain, pain in your feet might signal imbalances, misalignment, or weaknesses in other parts of the body. Exercises that target glutes, calves, and ankle stability can all significantly improve foot function. All the more reason to work squats into your regular routine!
Foot Massage DIY
If you’re lucky enough to have a partner who will massage your feet for you, take full advantage! You don’t need to get someone else involved, though. Just grab a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or one of those foot massage balls they sell at running stores and go to town rolling your foot over it. It shouldn’t be excruciating—if it is, you’re applying too much pressure—but you definitely might find hotspots that need extra attention. Rolling sore feet over a frozen water bottle feels fantastic.
As another option, try wrapping a resistance band or a piece of fabric like a bathrobe belt or yoga strap around your big toe. Traction it gently away from the other toes, then use your fingers to massage along the line from your big toe to the arch of your foot, getting into the fascia.
Go Barefoot Already!
By far, the most commonly prescribed remedy for any kind of foot pain is shoe inserts or other custom orthotic devices. I think this advice is dead wrong for most people. Insoles or orthotic devices should be treated like sprints: use them to support weak structures in the case of acute pain or injury while working to address the underlying injury or weakness.
I’ve been beating this drum for years, so I’m not going to rehash all of my arguments against modern footwear and orthotics here. Suffice it to say that I strongly recommend you go barefoot as much as possible and don minimalist shoes when needed. Go barefoot at home and when walking on soft surfaces like sand, grass, and some dirt trails. Use barefoot-style shoes on hard surfaces like concrete or when traversing sharp rocky terrain or the urban jungle.
Going barefoot forces foot muscles and connective tissues to adapt to the stress of everyday movement. It allows your feet to provide important proprioceptive information to the rest of the body, and it cuts down on improper movement patterns like excessive heel striking that can cause upstream problems. I have a trove of articles in the Mark’s Daily Apple archives related to my love of a barefoot lifestyle. I’ll link some at the bottom of this post.
The last thing I’ll note is that if you’re used to wearing regular shoes or, gasp, high heels, you’ll want to transition slowly to barefoot styles. Start here: How to Prepare for Barefooting.
Even If the Shoe Fits… Forget It.
Healing Plantar Fasciitis: Best Shoe Choices
The Benefits of Barefoot Lifting: How and Why
How to Strengthen Your (Bare, Flat) Feet
The Barefoot Backlash: Are the Naysayers Right After All? (Hint: No.)
The Plight of the Modern Foot: Conditions that Plague Us—and How to Avoid Them
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