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Foot strength and stability — or a lack thereof — can profoundly affect how the rest of your body functions. Here, podiatrist and fitness instructor Emily Splichal, MD, offers her top tips for foot health.
Every time you take a step, your foot is hit with unforgiving vibrations that can cause tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and more — particularly if you wear high heels or participate in foot-stressing activities, like running.
“The muscles in your foot play a huge role in how your body absorbs shock,” says practicing podiatrist and group fitness instructor Emily Splichal, MD. “Patients come to me all the time with injuries, stress fractures, and tendinitis because they just don’t have the foot strength that they need because nobody talks about training your feet.”
To help stiletto-wearing, pavement-pounding women avoid these foot health problems, Dr. Splichal teaches a class called Integrated Strength at Crunch Gym in New York City. Her classes are designed to tone bodies from the toes up using barefoot, single-leg standing sequences guaranteed to make you feel the burn — and help fortify your feet against daily stresses and chronic pain.
Dr. Splichal believes in barefoot strength training because, over time, it can strengthen your feet so much, it will actually raise your arches and fix flat feet, she says. And balance training — achieved through standing on one foot or single-leg exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts — is the most functional work you can do for your body, she adds, because daily activities like walking, running, and climbing stairs are all done one leg at a time.
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Plus, standing on one leg strengthens and stabilizes your foot, ankle, and hip, which fortifies your entire lower body and can reduce knee pain. “Your knee takes the brunt of all the imbalances that we have,” Dr. Splichal explains, “and barefoot training on one leg can correct those imbalances.”
To start an at-home foot health routine to reduce pain, try these four moves:
For strength: Short foot. This is a movement so small, Dr. Splichal describes it as “Kegels for your foot.” To perform the short foot exercise, stand barefoot and contract the arch of your foot by driving your big toes into the ground. “It makes the bottom of the foot contract, it pulls your arch up, and fires your hips and abs — just from that one little movement,” she says. She recommends “short footing” a few times a day while you’re doing another activity like brushing your teeth, cooking dinner, or waiting for the bus.
For strength: Stand on one leg. Now that you know the benefits of single-leg training, try it at home by simply standing barefoot on one foot while standing in line or doing chores around the house. For an extra balance challenge that will really fire your feet, close your eyes — it throws off your center of gravity and makes balancing more challenging.
For recovery: Stand on golf balls. Golf balls under your feet work the same way foam rollers or massage sticks do for your other body parts — they break up lactic acid to help muscles relax and recover from stress. If standing on the balls is too intense for you, sit in a chair and roll the golf balls under your feet for a light massage. This exercise can be helpful for arch pain, cramps, and foot pain from plantar fasciitis, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association.
For recovery: Calf stretches. Tight calves put a lot of strain on your feet, which is why Dr. Splichal recommends stretching your calves daily. For a simple stretch, face a wall from two to three feet away. Lean into the wall, keeping your heels on the floor and your knees extended, and hold. For a deeper stretch, stand on one leg on a stair, holding a railing for support. Drop your heel, so that it hangs off the step, and push it down with your weight until you feel a stretch in your calf.