This unconventional approach really works…

Just about every workout these days includes “core” exercises that strengthen muscles in the abdomen and lower back. That’s because you need a strong core for balance, posture and everyday movements.

But there’s another core muscle group that you probably haven’t thought about. New research suggests that a strong foot core might be the key to avoiding painful plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, bursitis and other common foot and leg problems.

Oh, My Aching Feet!

The Institute of Preventive Foot Health reports that more than three-quarters of all US adults have suffered from foot pain at some point in their lives.

Surprising: Much of the foot/leg pain that is attributed to overuse is actually caused by weakness of the small muscles, known as intrinsic muscles, deep inside the feet.

Latest development: Research now suggests that strengthening the intrinsic muscles by walking barefoot and doing certain simple foot exercises (see below) can help prevent and treat the common foot and leg problems mentioned earlier.

The Case Against Shoes

Shoes protect your feet from rough surfaces and harmful organisms and keep your toes warm. But they do not contribute to foot strength.

Millions of people worldwide go shoeless most of the time—and have stronger feet because of it. A study published in the podiatry journal The Foot found that modern-day Zulus, who often go barefoot, have the healthiest feet, while shoe-wearing Europeans have the unhealthiest feet.

Explanation: The intrinsic muscles in the feet have sensory receptors that convey important information—about gait, balance, alignment, etc.—to the larger (extrinsic) muscles in legs and feet. Shoes blunt these signals by preventing the muscles from flexing normally. Result: Without this vital information from the small muscles, the large muscles become overworked and break down more rapidly, leading to possible injuries.

Kick Off Your Shoes!

The easiest way to strengthen the small foot muscles is to shed your shoes and pad around the house in your bare feet. I advise people to walk barefoot as much as they can. (Wearing thin, nonslippery socks is OK if your feet get cold.)

Wearing shoes without thick soles or a lot of arch support (so-called minimalist shoes) also permits the intrinsic muscles in the feet to flex and contract but not as much as walking barefoot. Examples of brands to try: Vivobarefoot and New Balance Minimus.

Caution: Flexing the intrinsic muscles too much when you aren’t used to it can increase foot/leg pain at first. To prevent this, before going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes, incorporate the foot exercises below into your routine. Then try going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes for a few days. If you start to develop pain, stop going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes but continue to strengthen your feet for a few weeks and then try again.  

Also: You want more support, not less, when you’re dealing with a current injury to allow the tissues to heal. Don’t wear minimalist shoes or go barefoot until you’ve fully recovered—and check first with your doctor if you have neuropathy (a type of nerve damage that can occur with certain conditions such as diabetes) in your feet.

Exercising Your Foot Core

In addition to walking barefoot whenever you can, exercise that is performed barefoot, such as yoga and Pilates, will also strengthen your feet. But for a simple and effective foot core workout, try the following exercises.

Important: Before you begin the exercises, sit down with one foot flat on the ground. Roll your ankle out to lift the ball of your foot off the ground. Then roll your foot the other way to lift your little toe off the ground. Keep doing this until you can sense where the midpoint is between these two extremes. This point is the subtalar neutral, the optimal position for the foot to be in to adapt to the demands placed on it. Repeat with the other foot. 

  • “Short foot” exercise. What to do: Sit in a chair with your bare feet flat on the floor. Engage the intrinsic muscles by sliding your big toes back toward the heels, but without curling the toes. (You’re temporarily making your feet shorter—hence the name of the exercise.) Hold the stretch for about six seconds. Do this eight to 10 times, rest for about a minute, then repeat the cycle two more times. Do the sequence at least a few times a day on each foot.

Note: It can be difficult to get the hang of this exercise because we’re not used to engaging these muscles. You’ll know you’re doing it right when the foot arches rise.

Once you’ve mastered this movement, you can work the muscles harder by doing this exercise while standing…or by standing on one foot. Studies have shown that people who do this exercise have improvements in balance as well as arch height within four weeks.

  • Quarter roll exercise. What to do: Place a quarter under the ball of each foot, just behind the big toes. While standing, rise up slightly on your toes. Try to roll your feet so that your weight is directly over the quarters (or as close as you can get). Hold the position for five to 10 seconds, rest for about a minute and repeat eight to 10 times. Do the sequence at least a few times a day.

As your muscles get stronger, you can increase the difficulty of the exercise by raising your heels higher or by rising up on one foot at a time.

How’s Your Foot Strength?

If you’ve had plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis or other foot/leg injuries in the past, your feet probably need strengthening. Two tests to assess foot strength…

  • While standing, rise up onto your toes. If your feet roll outward, the small foot muscles are not as strong as they should be.
  • While standing, rest a few fingers on a table or the top of a chair for support. Then lift one foot off the floor and notice how much—and how quickly—the other foot wobbles. If your foot is stable for 30 seconds or more, the small foot muscles are probably in good shape.

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