Feet are really important to us. They enable us to get places, be active, and enjoy our lives. They are the foundations of our body and without them we would be lost. Through a finely-tuned process of nerve signals, muscle activity, blood flow, and constantly changing bone & joint structure, our feet are an essential part of the automatic mechanisms (known as autonomic in medical terminology) that help us to maintain our balance. If these foundations aren’t strong, then our body above them will struggle to remain upright and mobile. Unfortunately as we get older, our muscles tend to get weaker if we don’t exercise them.
This is the same for all the muscles involved in foot function, of which there are 29 in total, 19 of which are in the foot itself, and 10 are in the lower leg above the ankle with tendons that extend into the foot. Bearing in mind that we have two feet, that means there are over 50 muscles in the feet & lower legs alone that we need to keep in good health and strong.
So what exercises should we be doing to help all these muscles. Here are some that will help strengthen the foot & lower leg muscles, as well as stimulate proprioceptive feedback so that your joints know exactly where they are in space:
1. Put a pen or pencil on the floor and try to pick it up with your toes. Hold the item for a few seconds and then slowly place it down again.
2. With the foot flat on the ground, try to drag the toes & ball of foot closer to the heel, thereby increasing the height of the inside arch.
3. With the foot suspended off the ground, imagine writing the alphabet with your toes. Allow your foot & ankle to move as necessary to do this, and keep going until you complete all 26 letters. You can then progress to writing numbers as well.
4. Using a closed loop therapy band secured across the front part of both feet (called the forefoot area), separate your feet so that there is some tension in the band. Then keeping your heels in the same place, move your forefeet apart so that the tension in the band increases. Repeat this exercise but with the heel pivoting so that both feet twist outwards as the inside arch flattens.
5. Now secure the therapy band to a table leg and loop the other end around the forefoot nearest the table leg. Again set up tension in the band and keep the heel steady. Move your forefoot away from the table leg so that the tension in the band increases. Repeat this exercise but with the heel pivoting so that the feet twist inwards as the inside arch increases.
6. When standing still, slowly raise onto the balls of your feet (commonly known as being on tiptoes), hold at the top for a few seconds and slowly lower back down again. This exercise is even more effective if done when standing on a step (use the handrail for assistance with balance if required) and the heels overhanging the edge of the step. The exercise can also be progressed to doing it with knees bent and on uneven footing such as standing on cushions or pillows.
7. A useful tweak on the heel raise exercise is to shift your body weight to one side before slowly pushing up on that side. Once on tiptoes, shift your body weight gently across to the other side before lowering down slowly on that side. As above, it can be progressed to knees bent and uneven footing.
When doing the above exercises, make sure you repeat on the opposite foot/leg if appropriate, and carry out several repetitions of the exercise at least a couple of times a week. If possible, gradually add extra weight (or more resistant therapy bands) to the parts being moved so that the muscles have to work harder, thereby becoming stronger.
Even if you don’t make time to do these exercises, then getting your feet to work each & every day can benefit your balance. Keeping physically active through walking and/or running certainly makes a difference. If it is safe for you to do so, then doing this on variable terrain can provide even more benefit. Changing from barefoot to shod, and wearing different types of footwear can also help, but remember to wear what is suitable for the required purpose eg. running shoes for running, or hiking boots/shoes for hiking. All of these activities stimulate the finely-tuned process of nerve signals, muscle activity, blood flow, and constantly changing bone & joint structure that we require for good balance.
Health First Foot & Gait Clinic
Southam, Warwickshire, 01926 811272