We stand on them every day, they propel us forward through space, and they support our whole body weight. We smash them, stomp them, twist them, and lift them.
That’s right, our feet!
When is the last time you treated your feet to a sweet treat? Let it be a massage, pedicure, or a nice rub? The reality is, for how much our feet work for us all day, we don’t often take the time to treat them well.
Think about it for a minute. Have you ever walked into the gym and thought, “Okay, today is going to be a foot day” If so, I am impressed. We often go to our standard “biceps, triceps, throw in some legs, cardio, and call it a day”, type workout.
Feet are often overlooked when it comes to our regular fitness regimen. When our feet are weak the rest of our body has to compensate to find strength, balance, and control from somewhere else. Because our feet are the source of contact with the ground, the more stability we can find the less we have to work to stay stable.
Studying Foot Anatomy for Movement
Did you know our whole body is comprised of 206 bones? Of those bones, over 25% are found in our feet. Each foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. Though we may not think of the foot as a very mobile part of our body, it is constructed for movement potential.
Having healthy mobility is a crucial part of foot health. The more we learn to mobilize a part of our body, the more we need find stability from somewhere else to support the movement. Every joint needs a healthy balance of mobility and stability.
Working Out Our Feet
Children are often playing barefoot, running around, participating in sports and athletic activities, jumping on the trampoline, biking, playing tag – giving their feet a run for their money. In a mindless way, children are working out their feet all the time. Muscles will naturally weaken over time; it goes back to the age old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. Though as adult we may still play around in some of these ways, our feet are likely out of practice.
The main way we can work to strengthen our feet begins in our arches. Though we often think of one arch, the foot itself is actually comprised of three arches. The transverse arch spans horizontally across the ball of the foot. Our medial arch forms a line from the ball of the big toe, down to the center of the heel. Our lateral arch begins at the ball of the pinkie toe and travels down to the heel. These three points form a triangle from the big toe, to the little toe, and to the center of the heel. This triangle is often referred to as the “keystone” of the foot. Together, the three arches form a lift for shock-absorption and work in conjunction with one another for propulsion through space.
Feet Exercises for Foot Health
Doming for Foot Strength
A great way to build strength in the arches is an exercise called doming. In doming, we work to lift the keystone of the foot up and off of the ground (big toe, little toe, center of the heel). Imagine this area is puffing up like parachute.
Try working one foot at a time, and while standing, keep the heel and the toes connect to the ground. Begin to draw the toes towards the heel and sustain a hold for around ten seconds, then release the toes back away from the heels. Try to not scrunch the toes as you do this, keeping the toes as long as possible. Reverse the direction. Keep the toes connected to the ground, and lift the arch by drawing the heel towards the toes, sustain and release back down. The sensation through the arches should feel like a small “muscle cramp”.
Sensing Your Weight Distribution
Because the foot has so many joints and bones, it’s easy to create imbalances in how we carry our weight. Having proper weight distribution helps us align the leg properly from the ground up: foot, ankle, knee, and hip. Good alignment leads to less pain throughout the joint and efficiency in the body.
Stand up tall barefoot and sense where you feel the most weight on your foot. Is it on the ball of the foot? The heel? The inside edge? The outside edge? Depending on the strength of your arches you may feel more, or less, in different locations of the foot. Take notice of these sensations.
Now, shift and adjust your weight to feel the most weight on the center of your heel, second most weight on the ball of your big toe, and third most on the ball of the fifth toe. This is the weight distribution that gives us optimum support. Heel center, big toe, little toe, still all three remaining contact with the ground. Can you sense weight in all three locations? Can you feel the adjustments of weight distribution in the legs, pelvis, and all the way up the spine? Play around with shifting your weight through the foot and see if you can soften the rest of the body enough to feel how each small movement resonates all the way from sole to spine.
Move That Foot!: Articulation
With the foot often confined in a shoe during the day, it craves movement. Gaining mobility in the feet helps us with balance and injury prevention.
Standing up tall, spread out the toes as much as you can. Make sure all your weight distribution points of the “triangle” are connected to the ground. Press down your big toe and try and lift the other four toes off of the ground. Reverse the action and press the four toes down and try and lift up just the big toe. Make sure your weight it still distributed evenly.
Repeat this a few times, and for a challenge, try both feet at the same time. For even more challenge, can you lift the big toe up on one foot, and the four toes up on the other? Try playing the toes like a piano, lifting all toes and then rolling from fifth toe in to big toe, and reverse the action from big toe out to fifth toe.
Overtime, your ability to isolate the movements of the foot will increase. Do not be frustrated if you cannot perform all of these exercises today. These articulations are great exercises for connecting mind and body. Our brain has to tell our foot what to do. Try looking at the foot while you ask it to move, the visual may assist you.
Let’s get the ankle involved now too. Standing up tall, press one foot forward as if you were wearing a high-heel. Keep the ball of the foot connected to the ground, and trace a circle with your heel in one direction. Move the ankle around five to ten times and then change directions, stirring a circle with the heel. Repeat this on the other foot. You may hear or feel “pops” throughout the ankle and foot as you move it. This is perfectly normal.
Release for the Feet
Though a daily massage would be an enjoyable solution for sore feet, it may not be practical for all of us. One of the best ways to treat your feet is to roll them out for release. Afterall, they work hard for us all day! Muscle release for the feet increases circulation and creates relaxation after a long day.
Balanced Body makes a “Pinky ball”, a hard rubber 2.5” ball for foot release work. If you don’t have access to this at home, a tennis ball, racquetball, or even a spiky dryer ball can do the trick.
Place pressure and roll through the arches of the foot on the ball. Control the amount of pressure that is not just tolerable, but also pleasant, and let the surface area of the bottom of your foot open up and release on the ball. Move the ball in all directions and enjoy for 3 – 5 minutes. Remove the ball from under the foot and feel the benefit, then change to the other foot. The foot will feel softened closer down to earth as the tension of the fascia in the foot become released.
Moving with Two-Feet Forward
Though gone may be the days that you play outside barefoot, we must challenge ourselves to engage our feet more. Give them the workout the deserve and treat them well for carrying your body all day. Beyond the suggested exercises, other great ways to create more strength in the feet is to be barefoot more often, feel the grass and sand between your toes, and challenge your feet in various terrains.
Jump, skip, and frolic without shoes. Be liberated from confines of the leather prison! We challenge you to move with two-feet forward, having consciousness about your feet, and trusting yourself from the ground-up. Take the time to treat you feet well, and feel the benefit from sole-to-spine.
Pilates offers many additional exercises for foot and ankle strengthening. Sign-up for our e-mail list to get updates on additional articles and exercises for a healthier life.
Courtney Holcomb, Certified Pilates Instructor, Waveforms Pilates