For feet exercise videos scroll to the end!
“The foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” Michaelangelo
How do you feel about your feet? Whenever I ask students, there are plenty of grimaces. No one says, “ Oh! I love them, they’re such a beautiful of work of art”…..
Most modern humans in industrialized countries have feet that don’t move as well as they could, nor do they look at their feet and see them as the beautifully intricate and incredible piece of engineering they are!
Each foot has 33 joints and 26 bones, This complex and fine design enables the feet and ankles act as the master sensors of the body, feeling the ground beneath us and capable of transmitting that information at lightning speed so that the whole body ripples in response in a connected way. They connect to our pelvic floor and core to provide stability and grounding to our structure.
The feet and ankles have about a third of our entire body’s proprioceptive nerve sensors, which instantaneously send messages to the brain about the constantly shifting position of the body in relation to its environment including the ground. A third is A LOT in the relatively small surface area of the feet/ankles, but necessary, because the feet are the only part of the body in contact with a solid surface when we are upright. They have super sensitivity.
The effectiveness of these proprioceptive mechanoreceptors depends on how well all the tissues and joints move, for the brain to be able to receive messages and act on them. So feet that are weak, stiff and narrow will send poorer signals.
The Effect of Modern Life on Our Feet
Our need to move well, critically including the feet and ankles, has decreased with industrialised modern life. We walk on flat even surfaces, sit on chairs much of the time, rather than integrating moves like squatting, kneeling, climbing, or jumping into our daily activities. Our feet are held much of the time in shoes with the toes locked in a narrow, uplifted position, the arch artificially held, the heel also lifted up restricting ankle movement ,and the sole of the foot fixed rather than bending with variations in the ground. This even applies to comfortable shoes like trainers, and many flat sandals.
As a result our feet are often stiff, weak, less responsive to the ground and even oddly shaped. Some people end up with foot discomfort and pain which frustratingly limits their ability to enjoy moving. Bunions, squashed toes, hammertoes and plantar fasciitis are met with resignation, orthotics are commonplace. In our culture, the feet are very often a pretty under-moved and unloved part of the body.
The feet are connected to everything else, so poor feet movement affects the ankles, knees and hips and can create poor habits in how you stand, walk, move. Over time, this can negatively impact your balance, the fluidity of your overall body movement, and affect how much muscular tension you habitually hold, even playing a part in low back pain or pelvic floor dysfunction or neck pain.
This is why yoga classes with me include movements like rolling over your feet, toe spreading and lifting, calf raises and more. The movements might feel small, trivial even, but when you understand what the feet do you can appreciate the value.
How Yoga and Functional Movement Changes our Feet and Ankles
Improving movement in the little parts like your toe joints and ankles, and sensing into how everything is interconnected can have long term benefits. Maybe if we widen our toes more and strengthen our feet, our knees are less likely to niggle when we run or hike. Maybe a stronger foot arch and toe mobility will make our pelvic floor muscles more responsive, and even make our hips move more fluidly. Maybe being more aware and moving our feet more just make us feel more confident in our everyday balance.
Feet training appeals to the movement geek in me – I love how simple, regular exercises can create steady change, which is really motivating.
I started wearing barefoot shoes four years ago. I also started doing foot and ankle exercises most days, working out my weak points. I can now squat with my heels down (feet still very wide) which felt like such an achievement for me in middle age! Way more exciting than any fancy yoga pose actually. That took 3 years. Now, when I put on my best ‘going out’ boots which have a small wedge heel and rounded toes or my old firm hiking boots which were super comfy, it feels like I’m in a weird rigid foot clamp! My feet have permanently widened and my ankles are used to more movement. My hips feel stronger and more connected to my feet. There is no going back!
Having said that, I’m still working on my limited ankle mobility and big toe position. While I always walk in minimal shoes, running is a work in progress, but it’s good to feel I’m on the right track to keep moving better long term.
When I I started to change how I practice and teach yoga with a focus on more functional, long term sustainable movement (circa 2016), feet exercises were a key part. They are a great example of the value of consistently doing isolated intentional movements alongside more whole body movements like yoga poses.
So here are my top starter moves for getting your feet/ankles/calves moving more. They are all easy things to integrate into your everyday life. Start making your feet more responsive right now with a quick handshake. Let me know how it goes!
Simple Feet TLC
- ‘Shake hands’ with your feet daily- you could also use some toe spreaders, toe-spaced socks, (wider toes and forefoot, mobile toe joints). See Video 1 below.
- Massage your feet and arches – after a walk or after a shower, or have a ball in your kitchen to roll over the whole sole of your foot slowly (blood flow and feedback from arch muscles)
- Do 10 heel raises when you go up the stairs once a day – build up to single leg raises (ankle mobility and intrinsic foot strength). See video 2 below.
- Do your toe lifts- you can do them sitting at your desk or in the shower…
- Take time doing your ankle CARS. See video 2.
- Walk barefoot in the park or garden in the spring : )
Walk daily in ‘healthy shoes’ – start with 10 minutes! Acclimatise to real foot movement gradually.
See my next blog here on How to Transition Well to Healthy Shoes
This book, Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief by Katy Bowman, is good resource if you have challenging issues with your feet. Or get in touch with me for some one-to-one support.
If you’re on Instagram, I recommend @thefootcollective for good feet info.