The Importance of Foot Health

Oh summer, and ramping up spending time out in the sun! This season or a vacation trip is cause for increasing our foot traffic time in sneakers, sandals, slip-ons, and flip-flops. With this change, I’d like to spend a little time focusing on foot health!

Your feet and ankles are your most relied upon get-around tool – and their capabilities are an often overlooked key to strength, balance, and coordination.

It may seem a little odd, but you could do yourself a favor and give your feet some seasonal attention – kind of like how you trade your wardrobe out in preparation from fall/winter to spring/summer. Although truly, I like to think there’s no season necessary to pursue smart foot fitness!

Surfaces and Surroundings

Most of us take our feet for granted. Unless you are in pain, you maybe don’t give a second thought to walking, standing, and running. Fancy shoes, hard surfaces, and a lifestyle that includes the majority of our waking hours sitting can compromise your foot and ankle’s ability to quickly adapt to different surfaces.Embody Movement Pilates Prepare Your Feet for Summer Blog

Concrete and asphalt are the surfaces most common for a great percentage of the population in modern America. Taking yourself into natural environments like the trail or beach offers much more terrain and therefore greater variety for your foot. If you reside near a metropolitan area, maybe think of concrete and asphalt as the meatloaf that’s on the menu without fail every single day and natural environments as the different vegetables that’d enrich your body’s experience.

Experiences offer your brain the opportunity to adapt.

You can easily create more agile and adaptable feet through the strategies and suggested exercises that follow. But first, let’s take a moment to marvel at the very cool tool that is our foot.

Our Fascinating Feet

Your feet are literally the foundation for your body. They are responsible for all types of movement, including walking, jumping, running, kicking, balancing, and dancing. These amazing things can happen because your feet are filled with nerves that are directly connected to your brain.

Some cool stuff to know before we look at strategies and exercises. There’s a type of nerve ending that relays information to your brain called a mechanoreceptor, and it’s sensitive to pressure. The inner (medial) arch of your foot is in fact a muscle, that when aligned and firing properly is a key to also firing your glutes. Your feet are also home to 26 bones, 33 joints, and 19 intrinsic muscles, making them extremely complex! And last, when you put that all together – your foot has the ability to both be stiff and stable, as well as a flexible lever.

Where there are more joints, there’s more potential for articulation or mobility.

Let’s just wonder about that for a moment and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you have an awareness of taking advantage of the many muscles and joints in each of your feet?
  2. Do the activities you do provide your feet with a variety of movement patterns?
  3. Are you able to walk by pushing off from the big toe with most of the shoes you own? (in contrast to having your foot turned out and rolling off the inside of your foot)

Whatever your answers are, the exercises in the later section are terrific “vegetables” to add to your smart foot fitness.

Foot Alignment and Whole Body Alignment

Misalignment or weakness at the base of your body has an impact on your overall body alignment. Picture the foundation of a building becoming compromised. A crack in one of the 4 corners of the building causes the structure above it to slowly give way to gravity. Over time, the strain shows up on the opposite side walls.

Our bodies are pretty smart, and even when alignment is off, we’re able to compensate for it. When you have an injury or some pain that’s out of the ordinary, your body will still get you from point A to point B.

For example, it could be as simple as having a pebble in one of your shoes. You can still walk, but your body and brain make a million little adjustments so that it doesn’t stop you from getting you where you want to go. Whatever this patterning is, if it goes on long enough, it becomes a “program” that gets filed away in body memory.

When your feet become weak or imbalanced from compensation, it’s possible you might feel pain directly there. Weak arches and stiff ankles could result in bunions, foot pain, and poor balance. It’s also possible that you could experience discomfort or pain elsewhere, like your knee or hip, that you might not realize is rooted in an imbalance in your feet.

The good news is it’s never too late to begin working on your feet, no matter what age you are! As we have established, your feet are your foundation! So how can you focus on maintaining their strength, flexibility, and alignment so that you can support the rest of your body in functioning well?

Strategies for Smart Foot Fitness

Providing solutions to foot issues isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. We’re able to help address specific conditions more personally with our students who see us in person or online regularly. That said, here are some general strategies that I recommend.

1. Wake Up Your Feet

When you relax at home, take the time to roll your feet out with a massage ball; I recommend something like “the original” from Tune Up Fitness. I love their products, but a racquetball or tennis ball could also do the trick.

Because our feet are often in shoes all day, rolling them out “wakes up” increases blood flow and decreases stiffness; tasks the mechanoreceptors and tells your nervous system to pay attention. See an example of how to do this in the video with the exercises down below.

You could also strengthen your toes with a towel, and stretch out the bottom of your feet with a band or towel. These simple moves can strengthen and stretch your feet and eliminate pain before it even begins.

2. Practice Pilates and Yoga

These methods of exercise are a great way to come into a regular practice of bringing your awareness to your feet. You’re typically barefoot or wearing socks while in your class. As part of instruction, Pilates teachers often point out the proper stance for the students’ feet and discuss alignment throughout the session.

In Pilates, the series of footwork exercises encourage a sense of grounding through the feet to the floor or the reformer. This is important because it’s from that grounding where you have the potential to create the most efficient movement, which will, in turn, impact your workouts. When your workout is more efficient – your whole body benefits!

If you’d like to learn more about how Pilates can help make your workouts more efficient, check out how to Get Started with us here.

3. Dip your toes Into Barefoot Training

Your feet were perfectly designed on their own. In many cases, feet that have good training don’t require special arch support all the time, or an elevated heel (many running shoes still have this structure).

Begin walking either barefoot or with thin socks, little by little on different surfaces where it’s safe for you to try it. Slowly increase the time you spend barefoot and if you regularly wear a very high heel, take your height down in increments so that the muscles in your calf and foot adjust accordingly.

Of course, it’s not possible to walk barefoot all the time, so if you become more interested in a minimalist approach, opt for zero-drop, minimal sole shoes which mimic the feeling of walking barefoot. 

Just remember, if you do start the process of walking outside barefoot, please do so with care!

Let’s Jump Into Some Specific Foot & Ankle Exercises

No matter the season, you’ll start noticing differences if you perform foot exercises every day or every other day. I strongly suggest upping your care and awareness especially during the change of season or if you’re altering your mileage and kinds of activities.

Additionally, doing ankle, foot, and lower extremity exercises is highly recommended to maintain circulation and nerve health for everyone, and especially those who have diabetes.

Poor circulation in the feet can result in your feet feeling cold, tingling, or feeling like there are pins and needles. There are so many good foot exercises, but here are a handful targeting arch and ankle stability so that you can keep your feet limber, and support your body’s strength and coordination.

5 Exercises For Healthy Feet and Ankles: 

1. Alphabet Warm-Up – Either seated or standing barefoot, lift up one foot into the air, and draw the letters of the alphabet.  This will increase blood flow to your ankle and foot while working on joint articulation, foot dexterity, and eye-foot coordination. It’s up to you if you pick all-caps, or lowercase – then draw each letter as precisely as you can.  

(Precision is a Pilates Principle, remember…)

2. Short Foot Exercise – You may have seen me refer to it as an ‘arch raise’ – its other more official name in the barefoot training world is the “short foot.” Podiatrist, Dr. Emily Splichal goes through the Short Foot Activation below.  All you need is about 60 seconds to stimulate the arch before you slip socks and shoes on for your run! This exercise helps target the abductor hallucis longus – a vitally important intrinsic muscle that stabilizes the big toe.

And whenever you see the word ‘intrinsic’ – just think “core” for the foot.

3. Optional Arch Strengthener Game: Marble Grab – Set 2 bowls side by side, about 4-6 inches apart. Fill one with as many marbles or small rubber balls as you want to work with, and leave the other bowl empty. Grab your timer to start.

Then using your strong arches and toes to grab however many marbles you can, and place them in the empty bowl. Keep moving the marbles from one bowl to the other until the starting bowl is now empty.

Stop the timer and see how you did! Now, you’re all set up to repeat the process with the other foot!

This exercise fires your foot similarly to the “towel grab” exercise, but is WAY more fun! Consider adding it to family game night and everyone will have the benefit of getting stronger feet together in the midst of friendly competition!

4. Heel Raises with a Ball – Another important intrinsic muscle of your feet is your Posterior Tibialis, which helps invert your foot and support the arch. The ability of your foot to effectively invert is directly related to your body’s efficiency to absorb impact and then re-use the ground reaction forces. When that doesn’t happen, an injury could be right around the corner.

(psst this is one of my favorites!)

Also be aware, that when you roll onto the ball foot, that you are targeting a spot that is considered the front center of your foot. 

5. Calf Stretch – The classic stretch for the ankle and Achilles. You can do this bilaterally by keeping your heels down and doing a squat in parallel. Or one leg at a time, as you ‘lunge’ toward a wall, supporting yourself with your hands. Just make sure that the foot you’re stretching has the toes pointed straight ahead rather than turned out.

Care for your feet, and they’ll keep taking you where you want to go! 

Your foot plays a crucial role in your strength and dynamic capability. In this article, we’ve talked about how foot health can have a major impact on the whole body. Seasonal changes and the environments you’re in influence the choices you make for your feet. You can devise your own program through several different strategies, as long as it involves creating awareness and specifically training your feet, overall.

And finally, practice what you’ve learned in this blog and the videos, and you’re on your way to creating greater balance, resilience, and independence with happy healthy feet! 

If you enjoyed the exercises above, you might want to check out our IGTV series for the feet. Here’s a quick sample (@8min).  And if you try any of these exercises, we’d love to hear from you: DM us on Facebook or Instagram!

Interested in a foot/ankle assessment?  We have a Barefoot Training Specialist who can help! Call for more information or to set up an appointment.

See you in the studio!  And if you enjoyed reading this, check out more tips on how to put your best foot forward.

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