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5 Foot Strengthening Exercises for Pain Relief, Strength, and Flexibility

Are you showing your feet enough love? If you’re not, you could be increasing your risk of a fall…

After all, you use your feet every single day. They’re one of the primary components of staying upright! But just like the rest of your body, your feet change with age (and neglect).

Common structural changes include:

  • Faltered arches – Where your feet become flatter.
  • Claw toes – Where your toes dig down into your shoes. Claw toes can be caused by wearing shoes that are too tight, or by weak foot muscles.
  • Bunions – Where your big toe pushes against your next toe and forces the joint outward on the side of your foot.

All these changes throw the natural motion of walking out of whack and cause pressure spots of pain. In fact, studies show 30% of older folks experience pain from one of these common foot problems. And here’s the kicker… people experiencing foot pain are more likely to suffer a fall than those who aren’t!

So what can you do to look after your feet? Well, a study published in the British Journal of Medicine showed the combination of proper footwear, education on fall prevention (more on those two in just a moment), and foot exercises reduced the number of falls in 305 older people by 36%.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of the top foot and toe exercises – with videos – to help you out!

Towel Curl

Why the towel curl?

This exercise strengthens the intrinsic muscles in your feet. That means the muscles in your feet solely responsible for moving them! The towel curl helps to strengthen the arches in your feet too. And healthy foot arches allow you to stay upright without placing your entire body weight on the soles of your feet.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Place a towel a foot or so in front of a chair (a long towel like a bath towel works best.)
  2. Sit in the chair with your feet flat on the towel.
  3. With your right foot forward and knee bent at 90 degrees, curl your toes and try to grab the towel with them and scrunch it toward you.
  4. Try repeating this motion 10 times with each foot. Or once you’ve mastered the technique, try both feet at once!

Step it up a notch: Use a longer towel and place a light free weight on the end to increase the resistance.

Toe Splay

Take one of your hands and try to spread your fingers as wide as possible. Now, take one of your feet and try to do the same thing with your toes. How wide can you go?

If there’s barely any space between your toes it could be a sign of a tight, compressed foot. And that means you’re not fully engaging the muscles in your feet. (But don’t worry, the next exercise below will help with that.)

Why the toe splay?

The toe splay may look silly, but it can help improve the function of your feet. By spreading these often neglected toe muscles, you’ll be improving their strength and balance. And that will increase your stability!

The goal of the toe splay is to expand the gaps between your toes when you spread them. You can use things like toe separators (think of those pedicure-looking ones at your spa), and toe socks. But this exercise is a super easy way to strengthen your toe muscles anywhere!

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Keep your foot stationary and lift your toes off the floor.
  3. Spread them as far apart as you can!
  4. Hold for 2-3 seconds.
  5. Gently lower your foot to the floor.
  6. Repeat 10 times with each foot. (You can exercise both feet at once quite easily with this exercise too).

Bonus: This foot exercise also has the potential to combat the negative effects of ill-fitting footwear that lead to bunions.

Step it up a notch: Loop a small resistance band around your toes to make it a little more difficult to spread them.

Toe extension

Why the toe extension?

The toe extension is more of a stretch than an exercise. But it’s particularly great for people suffering from plantar fasciitis– that’s the most common cause of heel pain. In fact, plantar fasciitis affects nearly 2.5 million Americans each year!

See, the flat band of tissue that connects your heel bone with your toes is called the plantar fascia. Its job is to support the arch of your foot, but if you strain this tissue, it becomes weak or swollen, and your heel or the bottom of your foot begins to hurt when you walk.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair with one leg crossed over the other.
  2. Use your hand to pull your toes back toward your shin bone.
  3. Hold the stretch for 8-10 seconds.
  4. Repeat 10 times with each foot.

Step it up a notch: Try to complete this stretch three times a day. This particular stretch was developed by Benedict DiGiovanni, M.D., associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Rochester. And he demonstrated its effectiveness in a two-year follow-up study on 82 patients with plantar fasciitis.

After completing this stretch three times each day, 90% of patients reported they were “totally satisfied” or “satisfied” and noted decreases in activity limitations and pain. (That included before their first step in the morning and before prolonged periods of sitting where possible.)

Big toe stretch

It’s big by name, and it’s of big importance when it comes to your stability too! Your big toe (or hallux to give it its fancy name) plays a major role in arching your foot properly. And it’s key for propelling you forward when you take a stride and absorbing the shock when your foot lands back down. In fact, your toes bear 40% of your body weight when you walk, and your big toe takes most of the pressure!

So, if you don’t have proper mobility in your big toe, your entire walking gait (including your balance and stability) will be affected.

Why the big toe stretch?

The big toe stretch is an example of manual manipulation. That’s an exercise where you physically move or stretch a body part with your hands. It will gradually increase the mobility of your big toe and help with the proper alignment of your toes too.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair.
  2. Cross one ankle over the opposite knee.
  3. Put your fingers on the back of your big toe, and press your thumb gently on the joint or “knuckle” on the front of your big toe.
  4. Slowly stretch and pull the toe backward toward your shin. Go as far as is comfortable.
  5. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds. Release and then repeat 10 times.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 with your opposite big toe.

Step it up a notch: If you have bunions, you can add a little variation to the big toe stretch to help realign your toes and ease the joint back into place. Complete steps 1-3 the same as above, and then gently push your big toe to where it should be aligned. Hold it for a few seconds and repeat 4-5 times. When you’re done, go ahead and do the big toe stretch outlined above too!

Calf stretch

You might be wondering why there’s a calf-based exercise on a list of foot strengthening exercises. But there’s a good reason! See, your calf muscles comprise of the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles. Your gastrocnemius runs down the back of your lower leg from behind your knee and joins your soleus to form the achilles tendon, which attaches to the back of your heel bone.

Why the calf stretch?

These muscles are vital in the motion of walking. They help to propel you forward with every step! What’s more, they help keep you flexible and spritely on your feet, so it pays to give them a little attention.

Here’s how to do the exercise:

  1. Stand in a lunge position– place your hands on your hips and stretch one leg out in front of you, with the foot flat on the ground and your knee bent at about 90 degrees. Your other leg should be back behind you with the toes touching the floor and the heel pointing upwards.
  2. Lean into the front foot until you feel a stretch in the calf in your back leg.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 with your legs switched.

Note: If you’re a little uneasy on your feet in a lunge position, try doing this exercise against a wall. The steps are the same as above, but instead of putting your hands on your hips, place them against a wall with your palms flat against it.

Step it up a notch: If you have access to a calf stretching box or step, try doing this exercise on it. A randomized, single-blind controlled trial showed that completing the calf stretch on a  stretching box can decrease muscle tightness more than the conventional method outlined above.

Support Your Feet, and They’ll Support You

One-third of folks aged 65 or over take a tumble every year. Thankfully, most of those tumbles lead to nothing more than a scuffed arm and bruised ego. But one in five falls causes a serious injury like a broken bone or a head injury!

Your feet are foundational to keeping you upright, so it pays to give them some love. Here are a few tips that can help keep your feet happy:

  • Wear shoes that fit: It sounds obvious, but when was the last time you had your feet measured? We get our feet measured when we’re adolescents and take it for granted that our feet will never change! But age, injury, and medical conditions can all alter the size of your feet. So why not pop down to your local shoe store and make sure you’re wearing the right size?
  • Try orthotics: These are medical devices you slip inside your shoes to support your heels and foot arches (they look like the insoles in your shoes). You can have orthotics custom made to fit the contour of your feet but they’re very expensive. Try prefabricated orthotics first to see how you get on.
  • Exercise your feet: They’re often overlooked when it comes to exercise. But spend a little time each week trying the exercises I’ve outlined above, and your feet will become stronger, more flexible, and more stable. And that’s invaluable for keeping you upright!

I hope you find these exercises useful. As always, please discuss any new exercises with your healthcare provider before adding them to your regimen. And if you have any other foot strengthening exercises or tips you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments section below.

Author: Monica Straith, BS

Monica is the PR and Outreach Manager and Fitness Lead at AlgaeCal. She’s an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Specialist, and has a B.S. and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she played varsity soccer for four years. Monica pulls from her experience in athletics and health to contribute to AlgaeCal and has also been featured on myfitnesspal blog, Prevention, and Huffington Post.