If you’ve got a gym membership or a home-gym setup, chances are you’re well versed in the benefits of working out your biceps, triceps, quadriceps, calves, pecs, back, core, and shoulders. If you love yoga, you know the importance of gaining flexibility across your hips and core—as well as so many other muscle groups. But for all of us who love exercise, there’s a crucial body part we all too often neglect, and it’s all the more puzzling when you take into account how often we actually use it: Our feet.
After all, according to the Arthritis Foundation, each foot you stand, walk, and run on every day is home to 26 bones, 30 joints, and “more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments, all of which work together to provide support, balance, and mobility.” Performing some targeted foot exercises will help you reduce soreness, boost your foot health, and will help you become more active.
“We are only as strong as our weakest links, and having weak muscles in the feet can lead to a variety of problems including pain, discomfort, and decreased mobility,” says Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN, an exercise physiologist and author of The Micro-Workout Plan: Get the Body You Want without the Gym in 15 Minutes or Less a Day. “It may seem counterintuitive but wearing supportive shoes can add to the muscles in the feet becoming weaker over time. The less these muscles are challenged, the weaker they become.”
Having stronger and more flexible feet is especially important if you’re a walker and a runner. “The feet are often overlooked when we talk about strength work,” Corinne Fitzgerald, head coach of Mile High Run Club in New York, explained to Runner’s World. “When we run, we land on one foot at a time with anywhere from two to three times our body weight as distance runners. Working on foot strength will help improve your natural elasticity, and you will react quicker. Strengthening the muscles that stabilize the feet can also help us prevent our arches from caving in toward the ground or our ankles to roll outward.”
If you’d like to take better care of your own feet, here are all of the ways you can—including some amazing foot workouts—all courtesy of Holland. Trust us: Your body will thank you later. And for more great exercise tips you can use, see here for The 30-Second Trick for Losing More Weight While Walking.
Most people keep multiple pairs of dress shoes. But why would you keep only one pair of exercise shoes? According to Holland, you could benefit from a shoe closet with a better selection. “Consider buying a pair of minimalist shoes and wearing them during shorter runs to help build up foot strength as well as improving balance and proprioception,” he advises.
For the record, he keeps in his closet stability trainers for long runs, trail shoes for trail runs and hikes, minimalist shoes for shorter runs and walks, and vibrams for the beach, where you’d essentially like to be barefoot but where “rocks and shells might be an issue.”
For this exercise, Holland says: “Sit barefoot in a chair with legs bent 90 degrees and a small towel underneath your foot. Spend a few minutes pulling the top of the towel towards your foot by scrunching your toes.” And for more great exercise advice, don’t miss the 3 Workouts Proven to Change Your Body Shape.
For this foot workout, you’ll need to sit barefoot in a chair with your legs also bent 90 degrees. Put a few marbles underneath your foot. “Spend a few minutes picking the marbles off the floor with your toes,” says Holland.
“One of the most natural ways to strengthen your feet is to go barefoot running,” says Holland. “Two of the best places to do this are on grass and sand. This can include doing lower body exercises, short sprints and even short runs on the grass or the beach while barefoot.”
“Performing lower body exercises like squats and lunges on unstable surfaces (balance boards, BOSU, balance discs) are also recommended to help strengthen the feet while improving balance and proprioception,” says Holland. And for more exercise advice, don’t miss What Going for a 1-Mile Run Does to Your Body, Says Science.