Certain foot exercises, along with appropriate footgear, can help rehabilitate your feet (including your toes) by stretching tight muscles and strengthening weak ones. Helpful foot exercises restore a dynamic balance between your foot and toe flexor and extensor muscle groups as well as integrity to the tissues (i.e., muscles, tendons, fascia, etc.) that act upon or within your feet. In this blog post, we share with you video demonstrations of the handful of foot and toe exercises that we've found to be most helpful in realizing the goal of natural foot rehabilitation.
The Big Toe Stretch is designed to move your first toe into a more abducted position, or a position farther away from your foot’s midline. The long-term goal of this exercise is to help get your big toe in line with its corresponding metatarsal bone, which represents the normal and natural alignment of these two structures. To perform: Gently pull your big toe away from your other toes while applying counter-pressure on the inside aspect of your first metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint (i.e., at the base of your big toe, where the bump or knuckle is). You can perform this exercise multiple times each day.
2. Ball Rolling Exercise
Helpful For: Restoring proper foot tissue tone and reducing any tenderness in the sole of your foot.
This exercise involves rolling a ball under your foot to release any plantar fascia adhesions and help alleviate foot pain or discomfort. You can use larger, softer balls (e.g., a tennis ball) if your feet hurt, or smaller, harder balls (e.g., a golf ball) to get more focused pressure. We like to use the Rubz Foot Massage Ball for this exercise. To perform: Simply roll the ball from side to side and back and forth underneath your foot. The sensation should feel pleasant, like a massage, and not painful. This video also presents several other tips or strategies for keeping your feet healthy at the office.
This exercise stretches your toes into plantar flexion—a movement in which the toes are flexed downward, toward the foot's sole—at their MTP joint. It is most easily executed when you are sitting on a chair or stool, though you can also do it while standing. To perform: From a seated position, extend one leg back behind your body and place the tops of your toes on the floor. This should bend your toes at their MTP joint (i.e., at the location of your toe knuckles). Gently press the front part of your ankle down toward the floor and feel the stretch across the top of your foot and the front part of your lower leg. It's possible to stretch both feet at the same time. This exercise targets the (usually tight) tendons that are responsible for extending (or, as is the case for longtime conventional shoe wearers, overextending) the toes, and it can be performed multiple times per day. Many people find this exercise to be most comfortably completed on a carpeted surface.
4. Intrinsic Foot Muscle Exercises
Helpful For: Addressing hammertoes, decreasing tension on your plantar fascia, improving toe dexterity, improving foot arch strength, and enabling natural arch support.
Two unique exercises that target the intrinsic foot muscles are demonstrated in this video: The Hacky Sack Grab Exercise and the Short Foot Exercise. The Hacky Sack Grab Exercise targets your intrinsic foot flexor muscles and is best conducted after you have gained flexibility in your MTP joints (i.e., after you have performed the Big Toe Stretch and the Toe Extensor Stretch for a period of time). To perform: Use a small ball, hacky sack, or rolled up towel to complete this exercise. Place your hacky sack on the floor and, with your heel planted, grasp the hacky sack with your toes and pull it toward your body. You can do this exercise either as a static hold or in repetition form.
The Short Foot Exercise is an isometric exercise that's accomplished by placing your entire foot flat on the ground and spreading your toes. To perform: Keeping your toes as straight as possible, try to grasp the ground with the sole of your foot to flex your intrinsic foot muscles. The movement, though subtle, should lift your main foot arch and help you build a self-supporting arch. This exercise is best conducted in a standing position.
Helpful For: Reducing hammertoes and rebalancing the pull of foot and toe tendons.
This is a two-part exercise that you can use to help rehabilitate hammertoes. The first part of this exercise involves performing the Toe Extensor Stretch (see above). This stretch can be held for 20 to 30 seconds, and it's intended to restore normal tone in the toe extensor muscles and tendons. The second part of this stretch is a mobilization exercise that involves pulling up on the very end of your toe to help re-establish proper length in a specific toe flexor tendon. It's important to feel a gentle release or a reduction in tension before moving from step 1 to step 2.
Though you can perform this exercise yourself, it’s often more effective to have another person assist.
Key Foot Exercises + Helpful Footgear = A Potent Combination
The stretching and strengthening exercises mentioned and demonstrated above are an important part of a comprehensive approach to building healthy, resilient feet that stand up to life's physical challenges. Another important consideration in achieving optimal foot health is to adopt and use helpful footgear that enables your foot to become healthier and more functional with each and every step. In our experience, we've found that a combination of Correct Toes toe spacers, Injinji toe socks, Strutz foot pads or Pedag metatarsal pads, and men's or women's foot-shaped footwear, when used in conjunction with the key foot exercises described in this article, offer the greatest possibility of realizing short-term foot comfort and long-term foot health gains.
Dr. Robyn Hughes is a naturopathic physician, or ND, with a special interest in natural foot health and sports medicine. After completing medical school at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Robyn trained extensively with renowned sports podiatrist and natural foot care specialist, Dr. Ray McClanahan. Dr. Robyn is a co-founder of Natural Footgear, a founding member of the Natural Foot Health Institute, a freelance health writer, and a regular speaker at foot care teaching events. Dr. Robyn lives in Asheville, NC, where she’s an avid road cyclist, trail runner, and yoga student.
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