Updated: Oct 29, 2022
Most reading this article probably have some sort of fitness routine to keep your joints healthy, strong, and pain free. Ideally this routine includes a mix of mobility and resistance training to increase bone density, muscle mass, and maintains connective tissue health in tendons, ligaments and fascia. I know this concept isn't “rocket surgery” to anyone, however when it comes to the 33 joints and 19 muscles in each foot, why should it be any different?
Our bodies are a complex system of systems, and especially when it comes to the muscular, cardiovascular, and skeletal systems, they are “anti-fragile”. That is, they only become strong, efficient, and robust if they are stressed or have specific demands placed on them. Just like doing a plank, despite being difficult and perhaps unenjoyable for most of us, the only way our core muscles will actually adapt and get stronger is by exposing our core muscles to a challenge (whether it’s a plank or any other exercise that challenges the core.)
However, the issue with the muscles and connective tissues of our feet is that most modern day footwear unfortunately impedes this process.
Without listing specific brands or shoe types, many modern day shoes may compromise foot activation and function because they are too supportive. That is, they are typically heavy, rigid, have a narrow toe box, elevated heals, and soft sole cushioning.
On the other hand (or foot:), proper foot and ankle mechanics depend on our toes having room to be naturally aligned to help with balance and coordination. The thousands of proprioceptors at the bottom of our feet must be able to sense the ground for optimal stability, and force production. And a minimal heel to toe drop facilitates a natural gait pattern and proper alignment of the entire kinetic chain above.
An illustration of the extreme would be to think about a time that you may have tried something athletic or played with kids in high heels or dress shoes. In that scenario, how fast could you run? How high could you jump? (both force production), how stable, coordinated, and agile did you feel? Probably not as awkward as this dog but you get the idea:)
Now I'm not suggesting we walk into the office Monday morning bare foot or that we never get dressed up in trendy shoes.
Instead, I'm encouraging a middle ground that includes an awareness of how our feet and joints feel and perform with the shoes we wear. As well as that we give our feet a little extra love or (stress) through mobility, strength, and balance exercises…. and of course some soft tissue care to help along the way.
Just to be clear, I am not a podiatrist, so if you have a specific foot issue or chronic foot pain please seek out a professional. And while most experts agree walking in minimalist wear makes the foot stronger, there is debate when it comes to footwear and long distance running. Even though there are long distance runners that use minimalist footwear, or even go barefoot, it is highly individual and depends on the type of foot strike. There is also a transition process to built up tendon and muscular tissue capacity slowly and systematically over a long period of time. For runners that want a deep dive about this subject, I highly recommend listening to this podcast from Dr. Peter Attia as he covers the research about the different types of footwear and striking patterns for long distance running.
So back to the average Joe or Jane who aren’t looking to run a marathon barefoot but just wants to keep healthy, fit, and pain free. When considering the benefits to foot health and function (and how our feet impact the rest of the body), there is probably no downside to including some foot exercises and practices into your routine,especially since many of the practices don’t require any extra time or effort other than going barefoot more often or using a more minimalist shoe with the activities you are already doing.
Before we get to the 10 tips below, similar to starting a new gym routine, not every exercise in the gym is meant for everyone. So please proceed with caution and remember to start off with small doses and build up gradually. If pain, stop and consult a professional.
Look for opportunities to walk more in bare feet at home or in your backyard vs putting on shoes or slippers.
Try wearing minimalist shoes when possible to improve foot strength and balance. This excerpt from the Washington Post talks about how this concept may be especially relevant to kids and seniors. "For seniors, ultra-cushioned shoes might lead to a different danger, the risk of falling. Davis hypothesizes that shoes with an extra thick layer of foam can filter out sensory information, diminishing balance and stability, and increasing the likelihood of falls, a significant risk to health and the largest cause of injury-related deaths in older adults." (see full article here)
Add balancing exercises or yoga poses to your fitness routine. You could also integrate balance exercises into daily tasks such as brushing your teeth or doing the dishes by balancing on each foot for 30 seconds.
Try lifting weights in bare feet or minimalist footwear. A hard surface is best for force production. That's why deadlifting or squatting in bulky running shoes just doesn't feel right.
Practice daily soft tissue work to help maintain healthy fascia and connective tissues. This is especially relevant if you are experiencing plantar fasciitis symptoms.
Talk your partner into a foot massage. If you wash your feet before, it typically increases your chances:)
Add some direct foot and toe exercises, to improve flexibility and mobility. These may also help with plantar fasciitis symptoms.
Try Animal flow to strengthen the core and the feet at the same time!
If you have a standing desk, stand as often as you can in sock or bare feet. Bonus if you can add some balance exercise or soft tissue work at the same time.
For those wanting to try out minimalist footwear, I'd highly recommend trying sandals, shoes, or boots by Xero's. Full disclosure, I am a Xero affiliate and its a result of trying several different brands of minimalist shoes. Personally I have found Xero's to be the best based on comfort, style, price and shipping convenience. Xero's also have a 5000 mile sole warranty and over 38 thousand 5 star reviews.
For those that want to dig a little deeper, here are some additional articles and research:
Thanks for reading and please reach out with any questions or comments! If you're looking for help improving your fitness or designing a personalized Rest, Recovery, and Resilience plan, please contact me to book a free consultation. I specialize in "helping busy professionals get fit without burning out". My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP Train at Union Station.