One of the most important — but underrated — pillars of a strong, well-functioning body is your feet. The 26 bones and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments that make up our feet and ankles act as shock absorbers, postural support, a source of sensory input — and, of course, locomotion. Foot pain is a common complaint among older adults. Many of us tend to think that the cause is muscle tightness, because that’s how it may feel. However, many foot problems arise not because your foot muscles are too tight, but because they’re too weak.
A lack of foot, arch and/or ankle strength can contribute to a surprising number of problems, including knee, hip, back, shoulder, and neck pain and dysfunction. Strong feet are not only important for daily living, but for performing well in your favorite physical activities. A recent research study found that simple foot-strengthening exercises can lead to significant improvements in running speed, horizontal and vertical jump distance and strength.
One of the most common foot-related problems, especially among older adults, is plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia is a ligament that connects your heel bone to your toes and supports your foot’s arch. Symptoms of plantar fasciitis include irritated or inflamed ligaments which result in pain near the heel. Exercising with plantar fasciitis may be difficult but working to strengthen your feet is key. While the causes of plantar fasciitis are not completely understood, foot muscle weakness is thought to play a major role. The good news is that you can improve the strength of your feet and thus the functioning of your whole body.
1. Single Leg Weight Swap
Start by standing upright, barefoot or wearing socks with your core muscles engaged. Hold a weight (e.g. kettlebell or dumbbell) in your right hand. Lift your left foot about 6 inches off the floor. Balance on your right leg in this position for about 5 seconds, making sure you feel your foot and ankle muscles working and making sure that your knee stays directly above your toes at all times. Keep your left leg lifted and slowly transfer the weight to your left hand. Balance for another 5 seconds, then pass the weight back to your right hand. Aim for 10 passes, then switch sides. I have my older clients start with about 10 pounds and work their way up to 25 pounds or more.
2. Towel Scrunch
This simple exercise activates and strengthens your foot, arch and ankle muscles, including small stabilizers that may be weak. Sit in a chair with knees bent and both feet in front of you. Place a small towel flat on the floor. Starting at the edge of the towel closest to you, use the toes of one foot to scrunch the towel and try to pull it under your foot. Repeat 3 times, then switch sides.
3. Lacrosse Ball Rolling
Rolling your feet over a small, hard ball (e.g. lacrosse ball or trigger point ball) is a simple way to release tension from your feet. It also increases overall mobility in your feet, which has likely been reduced by wearing shoes and spending most of your time on flat surfaces. Sit comfortably and roll the bottom of one foot over the ball for 60 to 90 seconds. Repeat on the other foot. If this seated position causes no pain, progress to standing (holding on to wall or other stable object for balance, if necessary). This way, a greater proportion of your weight will be used, which leads to a more intense massage.
Foot strengthening exercises are a bit different from strength exercises for other muscle groups. They can be performed more frequently (three or more times per day) and you’ll be simultaneously working on two other areas of fitness: balance (single leg weight swap exercise) and fine motor control (towel scrunch exercise).