There’s not many other parts of the body we expect more from—and yet do less for—than our feet. Their strength doesn’t cross your mind at the gym, and you likely don’t count a good, long foot stretch as part of your cool-down. In fact, most of us don’t think of our feet at all until they hurt. But when they do hurt, it affects everything.
Foot function is theoretically simple: bones, ligaments and muscles work together to bear weight and serve as a lever for propulsion. But when that mechanism is off, it can cause issues in your ankles, knees, hips and back. And if your body is in pain, it’s hard to stay active, leading to a slew of other health problems.
Feet are our base, key to staying active well into your older years. There are small changes you can make now in your day-to-day foot care—ways to strengthen and mobilize. Here, some tips to keep your feet happy.
Why finding the right shoe is so important
Shoe fit plays a big role in our foot health. “Shoes are responsible for a significant number of reasons that people need to see us,” says Brendan Bennett, a podiatrist in Halifax, N.S. Skin problems like corns, callous, friction, blisters are all distinctly shoe-related. Common foot problems like bunions, morton’s neuroma and plantar fasciitis are all exacerbated by compressed shoes. A shoe that fits well and allows your foot to move optimally is the golden ticket. Look for shoes that have a wide toe box and flat sole. Pointed toes are a big no-go, as are high heels. Shoes should be flexible enough to move with your foot. “We want to make sure the foot and shoe operate as a synchronized movement—whatever the foot is doing, the shoe is going to allow it to do,” says Bennett. So, as your toes bend, the shoe bends, and as your heel lifts from the floor, so does the heel of the shoe.
But, we understand—fashion calls. So, wear your fancy footwear for an hour or two, and then switch to flats. The point is to spend the majority of your time in shoes that are flat, flexible and give your feet ample room to be, well, feet-shaped.
How can you strengthen your feet?
The muscle group in your foot (known as intrinsic muscles) are very small and some can be difficult to isolate. Nick St Louis, founder of The Foot Collective, an Ottawa, Ont.-based education and health company recommends what he calls “short foot” exercise. While standing, contract the muscles in your foot while keeping the toes flat. You may see your foot shorten slightly, but even if there is not a big visual change, it’s still beneficial. Think of it as kegels for your feet. Cold feet in winter? Do short foot. Feeling a little stiff? Try short foot. That muscle activation increases blood flow.
The other activity that is most likely to strengthen your feet? Walking. Sometimes the best medicine is movement.
Stretching is important, too
Stretching your feet helps keep fascia and ligaments supple and will stave off discomfort. The more you move a body part, the more blood floods the area, bringing oxygen and overall lubrication. For example, to stretch out plantar fascia—the band of connective tissue—in the bottom of your feet, try out this yoga pose: sit on your shins on the floor, and then tuck your toes under you. Allow the weight of your pelvis to settle back onto your heels. If this is too much pressure, take some weight off your heels by leaning forward onto your hands, or by supporting your pelvis with cushions, folded blankets, or yoga blocks. Hold for one to five minutes. This stretch will increase mobility and relieve feelings of tightness.
Stretching every once in a while will help sore feet and legs feel better, but it’s not a long-term solution. On top of changing your footwear and activity habits, it is possible to physically change the form of your muscles or connective tissue like ligaments and fascia (within a certain range, we aren’t talking Stretch Armstrong here). But it requires time and commitment.
Lengthening is one way you can change form. Let’s say you often wear heels so the group of muscles in your calf are contracted for several hours each day. Over time this leads to shortened muscles in the calf, tight hips and lower back, and problems with glute activation, which all affect the way you walk. Research shows 20 to 30 minutes a day of static postural tension—long-held stretching position—will lengthen them. Put a loop or a belt around the metatarsals (the long bones in your foot) and the other end of the loop around your waist, straighten your leg, and hold it back while you watch an episode of Schitt’s Creek. Consistency leads to results, but Bennett finds compliance rates low. “To tell someone ‘for seven weeks we want you to spend 20 minutes a day doing this,’ what’s the probability of that? And to floss their teeth in the same day? That’s too much.” If you manage to commit, a longer calf increases the amount of time the heel can stay planted as you move through a step, increasing stability and efficiency as you walk.
You can go even further
St Louis has a few other daily suggestions. First, stand and roll your foot around on a lacrosse ball for at least two minutes per foot to massage your feet to reset muscles, increase mobility and increase blood flow. A lacrosse ball is $5 at Canadian Tire and, in St Louis’ experience, is the best density for this type of exercise. (A yoga ball or tennis ball are other options.) He also suggests wearing toe spreaders—silicone separators that fit between your toes—for about 20 to 30 minutes every day as you move around your home to help counteract compression caused by narrow footwear. Throw them on while you make dinner or put away laundry.
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Lastly, St Louis highly encourages spending time barefoot in a controlled environment, like your home or back yard. “Most shoes are like a comfortable couch for your foot. It might feel great, but if you sat on a comfortable couch for two decades your body would be in pretty rough shape,” says St Louis. In our current environment, feet go through a very limited range of stressors. Walking barefoot introduces more variety, like angles of incline and textures.
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What about orthotics?
We are born barefoot, but a lot of us end up using supportive devices. “Orthotics ensure that the correct muscles are functioning during different parts of the gait cycle,” says Sarah Alger, a Toronto-based pedorthist, an orthotic and orthopaedic footwear expert trained in postural analysis, movement patterns and musculoskeletal examination. She likens them to eyeglasses: they work while you are wearing them. Orthotics supply structure, support and offload certain areas of pressure. They do not shift alignment over time. That’s why wearing optimal footwear—which might include orthotics for some people—is so important in order to stay active and mobile in all areas of life.
The work should be slow and steady
The exercises St Louis suggests are supplements to slowly build a baseline level of conditioning. “Going in guns blazing is probably the worst way to go about it,” says St Louis. Recognize limitations and work within them. You can’t spend six months in plush winter boots, and then hit the streets in minimal shoes in the spring and expect to not have sore feet. Sometimes sore feet are a sign to slow down, do some light stretching or self-massage, and take a break.
If your feet are killing you at the end of the day, it’s time for change. Get active, since what we need is more movement in general. Choose appropriate footwear. Go barefoot in a safe place. Do some short foot exercises. Encourage blood flow. Build awareness for the body parts that carry you around all day. Take care of your feet: “Making sure people stay active starts in the feet,” says Alger.
Posted December 2019, updating February 2021.