Feets of Strength
The feet are the interface between the ground and the brain. A graceful gait and not falling are enormous evolutionary benefits so an inordinate amount of brain tissue is devoted to the evaluation of input from the feet. As we age, develop medical problems, or become deconditioned, our feet can lose the capacity to send balance and coordination data up to the brain. Training activities that enhance foot function will improve balance and keep us independent for a lifetime. Read the remainder of this article and watch the video for a demonstration of a foot to brain retraining routine.
Devote some fitness training time to restoring foot function. Anatomically, we are talking about the joints, nerves, and muscles that travel from the toes to above the ankles. The three drills described below are a good beginning but many other options are available.
Pain in the feet can alter the neural control of movement. The limp created by a painful foot leads to the sacroiliac dysfunction that creates chronic lower back pain. Find a way to reduce or abolish pain symptoms in your feet.
Uncontrolled diabetes causes neurovascular havoc in the lower legs. Many deadly and debilitating falls occur because of leg weakness and sensory loss created by diabetes. Restorative exercise is less likely to help if blood sugars remain at high levels.
You can perform this exercise throughout the day and it will help keep your feet healthy and strong. Point the foot (plantarflex the ankle) and flex all of the toes. Draw the foot up (dorsiflex the ankle) and keep the toes flexed. Extend the toes while keeping the foot pulled upward. Point the foot downward while keeping the toes extended. Keep the foot pointed and flex the toes. Move through this exercise in a steady and deliberate fashion. Take time to feel the muscles activate and stretch in the foot and lower leg. Repeat the “foot wave” for five to ten repetitions. If the muscles in your feet cramp, it is the brain’s signal that you need to perform this exercise more often.
Short Foot Drill
The muscles on the bottom of the foot are called the foot intrinsics. The foot intrinsics function in a manner similar to the core muscles of the torso. Their job is to brace the foot so it can transfer forces through a stabilized series of boney arches. Weak or slow to respond foot intrinsic muscles will impede the foot’s capacity to decelerate forces. The short foot drill will improve foot intrinsic muscle performance.
To perform the short foot drill on the right foot place the right foot flat on the ground and place the left foot back. Bend the right knee about 20 degrees and lift the left heel off the ground so more weight is on your right foot. Lift and spread the toes of the right foot. Lower the toes back to the ground and grip the floor with the big toe. Contract the muscles on the bottom of the foot. You should feel a lifting of the right foot arches. Tighten the muscles of the right leg from the calf to the hip and lift the pelvic floor. Hold this tension in the foot and leg for ten seconds and then release. Perform five repetitions on each leg.
A mirror provides visual feedback that can be helpful in improving ankle and foot control during this exercise. Perform the retro step exercise barefoot, on a level surface. You will be walking backward, so clear a path to prevent a fall. Reach a foot back and progress through landing on the forefoot and rolling over the midfoot until you actively flex the toes upward and push off the heel. Emphasize contracting the muscles that extend the toes upward and dorsiflex the ankle. Work on mastering a graceful and smooth retro step gait pattern. Perform twenty retro steps with each leg.
Watch video of these exercises here
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS