Feet: The Foundation for Fitness

Running Shoes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Without proper muscle strength in your feet, your body may become imbalanced or instable
  • About 15 minutes is all it takes to give your feet a proper workout
  • Simple foot exercises include picking up a washcloth with your toes and rolling a tennis ball under your foot

By Dr. Mercola

By the time you reach the age of 50, your feet will have travelled about 75,000 miles.1 With this type of wear and tear, it's no wonder that eight in 10 Americans have experienced a foot problem, while one in four say they are unable to exercise due to pain in their feet.2

Unfortunately, despite the fact that 25 percent of your bones are located in your feet and ankles, and your feet are the foundation of your body, where most movement begins, many people neglect to properly care for their foot health.

While you probably know you should be exercising the muscles in your arms, legs, back, and torso, when's the last time you exercised the muscles in your feet? Without proper muscle strength in your feet, your body may become imbalanced or instable.

Further, the most common cause of foot injuries are overuse or doing too much without proper support, according to an American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) spokesman.3

While you might not think about it, everyday walking is a repetitive movement that can lead to injury if you're not using the proper form and posture – and if your foot muscles are out of shape. Simple foot exercises can make a big difference.

How to Strengthen the Muscles in Your Feet

Podiatric consultants to professional sports teams typically prescribe regular foot exercises to keep athletes in top working form. About 15 minutes is all it takes to give your feet a proper workout. You can try the following exercises:4

  • Pick up a washcloth, towel, or marbles with your feet, which helps build arch strength
  • Stand on one foot for 10 seconds, which helps build core strength
  • Spread, point, and individually lift your toes
  • Roll a tennis ball under your foot
  • Stand on tiptoe, which helps strengthen your calves

Whole body vibration exercise using a vibrating platform, such as a Power Plate, is another excellent adjunct to your fitness program, as it can radically boost the effectiveness of virtually any exercise, including those for you feet. It is particularly useful for improving balance and circulation, which are both beneficial for foot health.

How You Walk Matters for Your Whole Body

As noted by Katy Bowman, a scientist and author of the book: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement:5

"Walking is a superfood. It's the defining movement of a human. It's a lot easier to get movement than it is to get exercise."

The key to remember is walking can either add to your foot strength or contribute to injury, depending on if it's done correctly. The video above, featuring Joanna Hall, creator of the Walkactive Program, demonstrates proper walking techniques, starting with your feet.

Joanna points out that most people tend to walk with what she calls a "passive foot strike." This is when your entire foot makes contact with the ground as one solid unit. According to Joanna, this kind of walk creates three problems:

  • It promotes poor posture
  • It hinders correct body mechanics from your foot through your knee up to your hip
  • It limits your body's ability to stretch and lengthen your muscles as you walk

To walk properly, you need to concentrate on two factors. First, you need an active foot strike; secondly you need an "open ankle." This will create correct posture, all the way from your ankle to your hip, and upwards through your body. From a functional standpoint, it helps you get the correct alignment between your foot, your knee, and your hip.

Proper tracking or alignment helps protect your joints during movement. This includes your knees, hips, and lower back. By stimulating the correct muscle recruitment during your walk you also give your glutes and leg muscles a better workout while simultaneously lengthening those muscles. This will help reshape your body in a pleasing way.

Your Choice of Footwear Impacts How You Move

Surprising as it may sound, some research suggests modern running shoes, with their heavily cushioned, elevated heels, may actually encourage runners to strike the ground with their heel first—a move that generates a greater collision force with the ground, leading to an increased potential for injury.

Forefoot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may actually protect your feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.

Writing in the journal Nature, Harvard researchers explained:6

"Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes.

…habitually barefoot endurance runners often land on the fore-foot (fore-foot strike) before bringing down the heel, but they sometimes land with a flat foot (mid-foot strike) or, less often, on the heel (rear-foot strike). In contrast, habitually shod runners mostly rear-foot strike, facilitated by the elevated and cushioned heel of the modern running shoe. Kinematic and kinetic analyses show that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners who fore-foot strike generate smaller collision forces than shod rear-foot strikers."

Research reviewed by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, even revealed:7

  • Running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted
  • Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population
  • Wearing footwear actually increases the likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, because it either decreases your awareness of foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle during a stumble
  • One of the most common chronic injuries in runners, planter fasciitis (an inflammation of the ligament running along the sole of your foot), is rare in barefoot populations
  • Running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent

Choosing Footwear Based on Pronation May Be Unnecessary and Possibly Dangerous

Pronation is the inward roll of your foot that occurs while you're running or walking. If you have normal or "medium" arches, you're a normal pronator (an inward roll of about 15 percent). But people with high arches are said to underpronate, while those with flat feet (or low arches) are said to overpronate. Different types of running shoes are now offered that cater to your personal pronation type, helping to supposedly prevent injuries, although new research suggests this may be a myth.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed no significant differences in injury rates among runners with varying pronation wearing a neutral shoe.8 Earlier research has also suggested that "prescribing in-shoe pronation control systems on the basis of foot type is overly simplistic and potentially injurious."9 Still other research suggested barefoot running used nearly 4 percent more energy with every step, which suggests it may be physiologically easier on your feet to wear lightweight – but not necessarily heavily cushioned -- shoes.10

So in choosing which shoes are best for you – minimalist, heavily cushioned, or none at all, for instance -- your best bet is to follow the principle of listening to your body and choosing the shoes that feel best to you. There is probably no "right" or "wrong" answer, and you will probably need to try on many different pairs before you find the right fit. You may even need more than one pair to use for different activities.

Daily Walking Is Key for Good Health

You may be surprised to realize just how little you move each day which is why I recommend using a pedometer, or better yet, one of the newer fitness trackers that can also give you feedback on your sleeping patterns, to track your daily steps. Setting a goal of 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day (which is just over three to five miles, or 6-9 kilometers) can go a long way toward getting more movement into your life. I personally am doing about 14,000-15,000 steps a day.

This walking is in addition to, not in place of, your normal exercise program. It's even better if you can walk barefoot so you can get grounded, and better yet if you can walk on the beach by the ocean. I personally walk 8 miles every day, mostly on the beach. This is in addition to my exercise program which is one hour four times a week.

Regular walking has many surprising health benefits, not the least of which is that it gets you up and moving instead of sitting. The medical literature now contains over 10,000 studies showing that frequent, prolonged sitting—at work, commuting, and watching TV—significantly impacts your cardiovascular and metabolic function.

For example, one 2012 meta-analysis found that those who sat for the longest periods of time on a daily basis were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease compared to those who sat the least.11 Yet, as soon as you stand up, a series of molecular mechanisms at the cell level set off a cascade of activities that impact the cellular functioning of your muscles. The way your body handles blood sugar is beneficially impacted, for example. Therefore, disease prevention for diabetes comes into play.

All of these molecular effects are activated simply by weight-bearing -- by carrying your bodyweight upon your legs. So as you get up and start walking, many good things happen in your body. For instance, according to a two-year study published in the journal Respirology,12 walking for two miles a day or more can reduce your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Another study published in the November 2013 issue of the journal Stroke13 found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60. Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man's stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn't matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.

7 More Easy Moves to Care for Your Feet

Getting back to foot strength, you'll have a hard time walking and moving in general if your feet hurt. So taking 15 minutes every other day or so to work out your feet is crucial. The exercises that follow, from Katy Bowman and reported by Livestrong, can be done in sequence or split up throughout the day, whenever you have an extra minute or two.14

1. Single-Leg Balance

"On a flat surface, stand on the left leg with knee straight (but not hyper extended) and bend the left knee to lift the right foot slightly off the floor, balancing for up to one minute before switching legs. To make more challenging, Bowman recommends keeping your arms down by your sides letting the lateral hips do the work and placing your foot straight -- not slightly turned out, which reduces lateral hip use [shown]. Repeat up to three times on each leg for strength work."

2. Active Toe Spreading

"Stand with feet about hip width apart and spread toes as wide as possible, keeping them flat on the ground as you create space between each toe (much harder than it sounds!). Repeat as often as you like, with or without shoes, throughout the day. In fact, Bowman says doing this exercise while in footwear is a great way to determine if the toe box of your shoe is wide enough for your feet."

3. Great Toe Lift

"Stand (or sit) with feet about hip width apart. Keeping all the other toes on the ground, lift just your big toes off the floor, then lower. Repeat 1-3 times. To make it more challenging, Bowman recommends trying to eliminate sideways motion of the big toe as it lifts… '[The big toe] should lift up, not lift up and go sideways,' she explains."

4. Walk on the Pillow Train

"Create a short 'train' of various sized pillows and cushions on the floor… Walk a few laps back and forth on top of the pillows. If you don't want your pillows to touch your floor, you might try placing them on top of a mat or a towel."

5. Wheelies

"Stand with feet hip width apart and arms by your sides. Push the pelvis out to the right, leaning into the right hip and begin walking quickly in a full circle from right to left, leaning into the right hip the entire time. Walk in a circle 2-3 times in a row and then repeat on the opposite side."

6. Passive Toe Spreading

"Sitting on a chair, cross an ankle over the opposite knee. Using your hands, gently spread toes apart, stretching the toes away from each other. If your feet are tight and cramp up on you, start with a little spreading for a shorter period of time, about 15 seconds. Over time, hold for longer (up to a minute or so)."

7. Top of the Foot Stretch

"Stand on right leg, with your arms by sides, and reach your left leg behind you. Curl left toes under and gently press ankle to the floor until you feel a stretch along the top of your foot. Hold this for up to a minute. Cramping on this one is normal, so start with shorter holds and progress to longer. Try a few times on each foot."

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