Two exercises to improve health of our feet - most overlooked part of human body

Ill-fitting shoes and lack of care often lead to foot problems, which can have knock-on effects on the spinal cord and lower body muscles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 10:33am

Many of us spend hours working out our abs and glutes, sweating our way through intensive cardio training, and stretching our way through yoga class. But when is the last time you decided to have a foot workout?

Typically we ignore the health of our feet until we can’t. Have you ever broken a toe, even your little pinkie toe, and been surprised at just how painful it is and so debilitating to all movement? The foot consists of 26 bones, which form approximately 33 joints involving well over 120 tendons and ligaments, and over 20 muscles. The feet also have one of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in the body (right up there with the lips), at approximately 7,000 per foot.

Not only do the feet provide our base of support, historically the feet “talked” to us about terrain and environment, to help us navigate safely and efficiently. By age 70, the average human will have logged 113,000 kilometres walking on their feet (lifestyle dependent).

Yet, well intended parents stuff tiny developing feet into “proper” shoes with ankle support, we beat out miles of pavement running in ill-fitting running shoes, and ladies regularly disable the natural cushioning, shock absorber effect of the feet with the latest fashion in high heels and platforms.

No wonder our beautiful feet are collapsing with fallen arches, bunions on big toe joints (hallux valgus), and pronation or supination (internal and external rolling of the feet and ankles).

To top it off, because of our industrial environment, most shoes are now made with such thick soles that the feet have lost their sensory ability to accurately calibrate footfall for navigation. As a result, most of us stomp our way though walking, running and dancing, applying too much force than necessary, which clearly has referred effects throughout all the joints of the body, even the neck.

For most of us, our feet live in ill-fitting shoes, causing “foot claustrophobia”, which puts the body in “fight or flight” mode.

The feet affect the way we organise the rest of the body. They set up the way the pelvis is balanced, and therefore affect the positioning of the spine and head on the shoulders.

Our muscular recruitment is also affected by proper foot stance. The way we stand triggers different lines of muscle activation through the leg and all the way up into the pelvis, which has significant implications for core recruitment.

One obvious illustration of this is pronation (weak or flat arches), a very common problem typically caused from shoes worn during the developmental stages of the foot, restricting its ability to naturally strengthen the longitudinal medial arch. When this occurs, the talus (large “turtle shell” ankle bone which sits roughly atop the heel) is pulled down out of its neutral position, coupled with a collapse of the navicular bone.

Critically, the talus receives the body’s weight through the tibia (shin bone), the main weight-bearing bone of the lower leg; when it collapses out of neutral due to an unsupportive arch, the entire pull of the pronated foot influences the femur (thigh bone) to roll in and pull the pelvis anteriorly (forward), often causing lordosis, or excessive arch in the lower back. It also causes excessive strain on the knees, which then misalign internally.

The effects of pronation are even evident all the way up through the spine and head positioning. In correcting the talus position by lifting the arch, the body moves globally back into a more neutral alignment. The neutral pelvis then provides the balanced position from which to effectively engage the deep abdominals and strengthen the core.

For a simple demonstration of how easy pronation is to correct, stand up with your feet hip distance wide and parallel. Without actually moving the feet, press outward from the heels, as if you were stretching the carpet wider. This corrects the talus to neutral.

Notice the intelligence with which the body immediately responds: your arch will lift, and you should get a beautiful “drawing in and up” sensation from the inner thighs and pelvic floor, thus positioning the pelvis in more of a posterior tilt, while simultaneously feeling the gluteus medius (side of the bum) muscles plug in as pelvic stabilisers. The knee moves into alignment with the ankle and hip, and the lower back lengthens, re-balancing the head over the sit bones, thus lightening the loading on the neck.

Depending on how we are standing or moving, the bones of the feet dynamically shift from outside to inside, with a ripple effect throughout the entire skeleton. They move in choreographed fashion with the three arches of the feet: the medial longitudinal arch (as previously mentioned), lateral longitudinal, and transverse. These three arches create three distinct points of contact on the sole of the foot with the floor, the ideal tripod upon which we stand: the heel (calcaneus), the base of the baby toe (the fifth metatarsal), and the base of the big toe (the first metatarsal head).

The foot transforms from dynamic to static almost instantaneously, as the twisted plate of the arches tightens and relaxes (think of a twisted rectangular sponge and its rigidity as you tighten and relax the twist at its centre). When we walk, weight lands in the heel, then travels through the foot, with push off through the toes as weight is transferred to the other leg.

Fortunately, there are a host of simple foot corrective exercises to address these problems. Joseph Pilates was one of the earliest advocates for healthy feet and developed “foot workouts” for his clients. In fact, the first piece of equipment he fashioned was the Foot Corrector, to stretch, strengthen, and stimulate the nerve endings of the foot.

The first exercise is modelled after Pilates’ “Toe Gizmo” exercise and is designed to wake up the nerve endings in each toe:

1. Take two rubber wristbands and loop them together to make two long connected loops. Sit down with feet firmly planted on the floor; place one of the loops around the big toe, between the two proximal joints; and hold the other loop in one hand.

2. With the free hand, press the remaining four toes down, and pull up the big toe with the band, really stretching it away from the floor. Feel the neural response through the foot and up the back of the leg.

3. Now, resist the band with the big toe muscles and push the toe back to the ground; keep gentle upward traction with the hand holding the band. Repeat twice on each toe, both feet, working slowly and mindfully.

The second exercise rebalances the tripod of weight bearing:

1. Stand tall in parallel on both legs. Lift the big toes on both feet; notice how that supinates the feet (rolls them out).

2. Keeping big toes lifted, now push the big toe mound (joint) back down, and notice the diagonal strengthening of the foot from big toe joint to outer heel. Repeat.

3. Now lift all toes except for the big toes; notice how that pronates the foot (rolls in). Re-calibrate weight back into pinkie toe joint and feel the opposite foot diagonal strengthening, from outer distal edge to inner heel. Repeat. Try to do both feet at the same time.

The next time you’re wondering why you have that niggling knee pain or tightness in your lower back, take a peek down and see what your feet are up to. Go barefoot. Play with your toes. Treat your feet with the care and love they deserve to keep your body balanced and pain free.

The writer is the director of Flex Studio.