Fitness for your feet
Looking to stay in top shape? Look down… way down. Your workout may be missing an important part of your body.
There are many reasons to show our feet a little love. They move us, help us keep our balance and absorb a lot of shock — as much as a million pounds of pressure each day. They also put up with a lot of abuse like being confined in shoes and subjected to long hours of inactivity. Add in the woes of chronic disease, aging and general neglect and it’s not surprising that some estimates warn that half of all people have some sort of foot problem.
Yes, our feet do a lot for us — but our exercise routines usually offer little in return. Spending some time flexing and strengthening your feet won’t help you lose weight or bulk up your muscles, but more people are becoming wise to the other health benefits of fit feet.
Why target the feet?
Our feet are made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and a network of more than 100 tendons, muscles and ligaments. Think of them as a system of parts in a larger machine: when everything is in good shape, the machine runs smoothly. When there’s a problem, it affects not just the part but the whole machine as well. (For instance, if you’ve ever injured your foot, you know that limping soon leads to pain in other places.)
Simply put: if you want to keep your body fit, you need to pay attention to your feet as well as other joints and muscles. If we don’t use them, we’ll eventually lose them. According to a report from Canwest News Service, foot exercises can help us regain the strength and mobility we’ve lost throughout the years — and help dodge problems in other parts of our body, like the knees, hips and back. Healthy feet also help prevent injury by supporting us in our daily activity and exercise.
And there’s no age limit on the benefits. According to a recent story in the National Post , researchers in Portugal found that ankle and foot flexing exercises helped improve strength and balance in older people. Though small in scope, study participants — all of whom are in long term care institutions — who did three 15-minute sessions of foot exercise each week for six weeks increased their flexibility and mobility.
Why is this important? While the findings warrant further investigation, they point to a new way to help seniors stay more active and independent, and decrease their risk for falls. (Read the full story.)
Your new moves
So how can you get your feet in shape? What you do and how long you do it for will depend on what issues you’re experiencing, your abilities and any other special needs and interests — like if you’re athletic or you wear high heels on a regular basis. You don’t need expensive equipment, or even shoes as most are done in bare feet.
Here are some sample moves recommended by experts:
– Stretch your arches: stand with your toes touching the wall and lean forward slightly until the arch starts to stretch. You can also do this exercise on the floor instead — sit with one leg stretched out in front of you and loop a towel around your foot, holding the ends in your hands. Simply pull the towel gently towards you to stretch the foot.
– Stretch and separate your toes: insert corks or toe separators between your toes and squeeze for five seconds, repeating this move ten times. To tackle the opposite direction, fit a rubber band around all five of your toes and stretch them outwards as far as possible for five seconds. (Also repeat this move ten times.)
– One toe lift: place your feet flat on the floor and try to lift each toe, one at a time. Try doing this exercise twice a day — but be warned it’s not as easy as it sounds!
– Heel raises: start standing with your feet flat on the floor and then raise yourself up onto the balls of your feet and hold for five seconds, repeating this move ten times. (Hold on to a chair or use the wall to help keep your balance, if needed.)
– Toe points and flexes: lift one foot off the ground and gently point your toes downward. Next, flex your foot upward and hold. Experts note to hold each position for the same amount of time and do the same number of repetitions for each position and foot.
– Toe pick ups: make a pile of small items on the floor (like marbles or pencils) and use your toes to pick them up and move them to make a second pile. Do three sets of this exercise three times a day.
– Massage: place a small ball (like a golf ball) under your foot and roll it around for a few minutes while applying light pressure. If you’d like to cool off instead, use a frozen water bottle and roll it back and forth. (Of course, getting your partner to massage your feet also provides the same benefits.)
If you do nothing else, allow some wiggle room in your routine. At work or while sitting for long periods of time, take a moment to slip off your shoes and move your feet up and down or in circles ten times. Also, wiggle and straighten your toes to give them a break.
Here’s a quick demonstration of some of the moves:
(Need a little help visualizing the movements? Check your local library for books on foot health, or look online for reputable foot health websites and video sites like Youtube.com for examples.)
Note: as with any other exercise, you might want to seek some expert advice before you start, especially if you haven’t been active for a while or have certain health conditions.
Healthy feet essentials
In addition to exercise, experts warn there are other steps we can take to keep our feet as healthy as possible.
Inspect regularly. What happens to the rest of your body often shows up in the feet first — like the first warning signs of chronic disease like circulatory disorders and diabetes. Experts recommend taking a daily look at your feet for signs like:
– Changes in colour or temperature.
– Thick or discoloured nails.
– Cracks or cuts in the skin, or cuts or sores that aren’t healing.
– Peeling or scaling on the soles of the feet.
– Any unusual growths.
These daily inspections are especially important for people who have diabetes or other conditions where there is a loss of feeling in the foot.
Wear properly fitting, supportive shoes. This applies not just when you’re exercising, but even when you’re sitting, walking or doing chores. Experts warn that many of our feet’s woes are caused by improperly fitting shoes that pinch, rub and constrict the foot. Good arch support is also key because it keeps the rest of our joints, muscles and bones in proper alignment.
You don’t have to ditch your thongs, high heels or strappy sandals, but make sure they fit well and save them for special occasions. If you need a little extra support for your arches, have a professional fit you for insoles or orthotics.
And a warning about bare feet: not only are you depriving your feet of support, you’re exposing them to injury and infection. Experts warn to wear the right pair of shoes for your activities and sport a pair of flip flops or sandals in risky situations like at the beach or poolside.
Promptly seek help. Like many other issues, it’s easy to dismiss foot symptoms as part of the aging process. However, experts warn that symptoms like pain aren’t normal and should be brought to your doctor’s attention. Attempting to diagnose and treat ailments at home could mean you’re not getting the right treatment, or you could be overlooking a more serious cause.
ON THE WEB
For more information on foot health, visit:
American Podiatric Medical Association
Canadian Podiatric Medical Association (also has links to provincial organizations)
Feetforlife.org (Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists)
FootHealth.ca (BC Association of Podiatrists)
Additional source: About.com