More Exercises for Pronated or Flat Feet

I contend that barefooting is the best and most natural way to have strong, mobile, and healthy feet. But it takes time to transition to an unshod or minimally shod lifestyle and not everyone wants that. So, I make a point to keep up with and share biomechanics- and physical therapy-informed clinical research on foot health. In the past, I’ve suggested you add the short foot exercise for arch strengthening to your foot health protocol. I use it regularly with my clients and in my FootLove Workshops.

Here is another foot exercise to consider for pronated and flat feet and hallux valgus – the condition that leads to bunions. The Toe Spreading Exercise is easy to do. I suggest you do it standing, but you could also do it seated with your hips and knees flexed to 90 degrees. I use a yoga mat under my feet for comfort.

  1. Stand with your feet pelvis width distance apart and facing forward.
  2. Spread the toes on your right foot as far apart as you can. If you are unable to spread your toes on your own, reach down with your hand and help to spread them.
  3. Raise your heel
  4. Over a slow count to 5, lower your heel to the ground.
  5. Hold in that position for 5 seconds
  6. Relax the foot
  7. Some protocols have you repeating this up to 100 times! But you might just want to start with 5 or 10 reps. Repeat with your left foot.

A recent study suggests that along with the toe spreading exercises,  you also strengthen your gluteus maximus, commonly referred to as your butt. Your big butt muscle is responsible for externally rotating your hip joint, and a strong one is thought to alter alignment of the lower extremity, thus reducing foot pronation. The authors found that the exercise most effective for a strong butt is performed in a prone position (lying face down) by slightly lifting the knee while maintaining the hip joint in external rotation and the knee joint at 90° flexion.

I bring this exercise into the yoga world as a unique modification of salabhasana aka locust pose. Or, you could think of it as a hybrid between locust and bow poses. The study protocol called for 3 sets of 20 repetitions of single leg lifts. I think you could explore fewer reps of double legs and longer holds.

Namaste, Michele

Foot Love Workshop Exercises – October 2015

You can find variations of some of these exercises in world-renowned Biomechanist Katy Bowman’s books & DVD included in her Healthy Foot Kit.

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Standing Exercises

All standing exercises should be done in Tadasana aka mountain pose with your feet pelvis-width distance apart, pointing forward, which means the outside edges of your feet should form a straight line (you can line up the edge of one of your feet on a yoga mat to check that it is actually straight and match the other accordingly); and your hips back so that they are stacked over your knees, ankles, and heels and not drifting or thrusting forward. Keep your weight back in your heels. I call this Smart Tadasana Alignment.

Toe Spreading

Lift your toes (this is called extension), spread them away from each other, and place them down onto the mat. Repeat several times throughout your day. You can improve your ability to actively spread your toes by passively spreading them using toe socks.

Short Foot Exercise

A full explanation is linked, but the short of it is to draw the base of your big toe towards your heel, without flexing or curling your toes. It’s OK if they grip the floor. This action lifts your arch, thereby shortening the length of your foot, and strengthening the arch-supporting muscles. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times for each foot. Try to do 5 sets of 3 repetitions per day, holding for 5 seconds each rep. You can perform the short foot exercise any time your standing in yoga postures and as you get stronger, you can do it while balancing. The Short Foot Exercise is comparable to the Strong Yoga Foot.

Balancing

Any single leg balance will strengthen your extrinsic and intrinsic foot musculature. Once you are skilled at balancing on a firm surface, you can explore a variety of unique surfaces – a folded up towel or blanket, a yoga block, a half round, a boot tray of rocks, your yard…Hold for up to one minute and repeat several times throughout your day.

Exploratory feet

Move your feet in exploratory, weird, random, bizarre, strange, silly, varied ways. This can be done sitting in Dandasana (with your legs extended in front of you) or lying down. This is a great way to mobilize your feet before you get out of bed in the morning. Repeat throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Extend a leg behind you, pressing the top of your foot into the mat. It is important to keep your pelvis back and stacked vertically over the knee & ankle of your front or support leg as the tendency is for it to drift forward. If balance is a challenge, please use a chair so that you can concentrate on the stretch without worrying about the balance.Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Top of foot stretch

Calf Elevator

Lift the heels of both feet, coming up onto your tippy toes. Try to avoid letting your ankles blow out to the sides. If they do, then only raise your heels as high as you can keep your ankles stable. Hold for several seconds. Once you are skilled at balancing on both feet, start working towards one foot at a time. You can do this either by lifting the heels of both feet, but letting the work happen mainly in one foot; or you could do this balancing on one foot! Whichever variation you choose, make sure your hips are back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Calf stretch

A half round (or half moon as one of students sweetly miscalled it) is best for this stretch, but you could roll up a couple of yoga mats or blanket or use a book. Place the ball of your foot on the top of the half round with your heel on the ground. Keep your other foot even to and pelvic-width apart from the stretching calf. You can advance in this pose by slowly stepping the non-stretching foot forward. If your pelvis moves forward with you or you lose balance or get rigid, bring the forward stepping foot back and don’t progress until you can do so in a relaxed and balanced stance with your hips back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

I purchased a SPRI Half Round Foam Roller, 36 x 6-Inch that I cut down to one 18″ length and three 6″ lengths that I use for various purposes as yoga props.

Calf Stretch/Elevator Combination

Stand with one foot on the half-round and elevate both heels to a slow count of three. Hold for 3 counts. Lower for a slow count of three. The lowering is where you train eccentrically, generating force while you are lengthening your muscle tendon units. This is how you get stronger at greater ranges and with more control. At the place that you want to give up and drop your heel is the opportunity to exercise muscle control.

Hamstring stretch

I’ll be posting later this week on hamstring stretching, but for now, start from tadasana, place your hands on your thighs and hinge forward at your hip joints, allowing your hands to slide down your legs, keeping your spine in neutral. As soon as your spine starts to deform ie round, stop, come up a few inches and work instead on lifting your tailbone, which will move the proximal muscle attachments for your hamstrings that are located on your sitting bones away from the distal attachments that are located on your lower legs, thus stretching these muscles. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Ball rolling massage

Place a new, firm tennis ball on a yoga mat or carpet. Keep your heel down as you drape only your toes over the ball, weighting it as much as you can tolerate. Very, very slowly, roll the ball under your toes, from side to side, allowing your toes to spread as you go. After a while move your foot forward so that the ball of your foot drapes across the ball. Again, move very slowly side to side. Continue to move your foot forward in small sections using a side to side motion. When you are deep into the arch of your foot, you might explore some front to back motions, or invert/evert your foot to get into the lateral and medial arches. The benefit from this massage comes when you slow down, take your time, move forward in tiny increments, hang out in sore spots, and remember to breathe. This can and should be done daily as a meditation practice.

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Floor Exercises

Plantar Fascia Stretch – kneeling/squatting

In this exercise, you kneel with your knees pelvis-width apart on a mat or padded surface. Extend (curl) your toes forward. If you can, reach around and separate your toes from each other and make sure they are all extending forward. You may be able to lower your hips, shifting more of your weight onto your feet, but do this slowly and with ease as the thick band of fascia and four layers of intrinsic muscles on the soles of your feet may never have experienced this type of stretch. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Barbie foot

This is the exercise where you press your balls forward (of your feet, people!), all toes forward, all toes back, foot back. You know the one. In the balls forward, toes back position, your feet look like Barbie’s. You can use your arms to support you in an upright seated position, but I suggest you place your hands in your lap from time to time and hold yourself up using your own trunk musculature. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Bridge with marble

I know you all remember this bit of love from the workshop – a yoga bridge pose holding a marble with your toes and extending your leg. Yes, that one.  Remember, cramping is good…a good reminder, that it, that you should be moving your feet more. Again, images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Ankle circles, point/flex, invert, evert

This can be done seated with legs extended or on your back. My preference is supine with legs extended 90 degrees and soles of your feet facing the ceiling. Try to keep your legs straight and pelvis-width apart and don’t be in such a hurry. Slow, sweeping circles will assure full range of motion. If you fatigue, bend your knees, but keep moving your ankles & feet.

Exploratory feet

Exploratory feet can be done standing in Tadasana with your feet squirming around on the mat; seated in a chair with them wiggling about on a bolster; seated on the floor with them playing mischievously out in front of you; or lying supine, my favorite, with your feet in the air spazzing all over. The object is to make as many movements as you can. According to my teacher Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and math dork, if you apply a mathematical concept called a factorial, a foot with 33 joints can deform into 8,600,000,000,000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique ways – or thereabouts. Whatever.

Toe spreaders

These exercises will help to undo the harm that shoes with small toe boxes cause to the muscles between your toes that have so little range of motion or strength that you may not even be able to generate enough of your own force to spread your toes. The third exercise, Toe Lifts, was not included in the workshop because a) I forgot; or b) We ran out of time. Whatever.

Namaste, Michele

Back Up Your Hips to Cure Your Feet

Alignment Habits

In an earlier post, I suggested that you have three habits that are critical for the health of your feet. And you have control over the outcomes of each habit. Total control!

  1. The shoes you (choose to) wear
  2. How you move your feet
  3. How you align yourself

Every time I consider this list, I am tempted to declare that one is more important than the others. But, I never do, because they are equally culpable in impacting the tissues of your feet. An entangled lot they are.

Take alignment. Last week, I wrote about how to position your feet, when standing and walking, with the outside edges in a straight line. Feet that do not point straight ahead, but instead point out laterally or diagonally are one of the most effective alignment habits you can have for building a bunion. But there is another alignment habit that is just as prevalent and injurious. Standing with your pelvis shifted anterior of your body’s center of mass. Huh?

The mass of your pelvis is your center of gravity. If you draw a vertical line from heaven to hell, it should go through the exact center of your pelvis. You really could be the center of the universe. “Should” is key here. Wherever the center or mass of your pelvis is, that is where the bulk of your weight will be. If your pelvis is is vertically stacked over your knees, ankles and heels and vertically stacked under your shoulders & ears, then the bulk of your weight will be over the center of your heels, which is structurally the strongest part of your foot and the only place 100% of your weight should be. When your pelvis is shifted or thrust forward of your ankles/heels, your center of gravity, mass of your pelvis, bulk of your weight loads your forefoot, the weakest part of your foot. The tiny bones, muscles, and other tissues of your forefoot are intended for intrinsic movements and supporting the arches of your feet. Bearing weight on the front of your feet can contribute to plantar fasciitis, bunions, bone spurs, hammertoes, flat feet, metatarsalgia (pain at the base of the toes), and neuropathy.

There are other reasons for vertical stacking of your joints, all of which I will write about in more detail another time.

  • minimizes the forces that cause joint degeneration
  • signals your pelvis and femurs (your “hips”) to build more bone density, making them stronger and less susceptible to fractures

Getting Your Hips Back

My yoga students attest to the broken recordness of my cuing. “Hips back, hips back, hips back.” “Get your hips back over your heels.” “Your hips should be stacked over you knees, which should be stacked over your ankles.” “Keep your pelvis from shifting forward.” “Hips back, hips back, hips, back.” I never tire of saying it.

What and where are your hips anyway? Your hip is not a bone. Your hip is actually a joint made from your pelvis and femurs. Basically, the top of your femur (greater trochanter) fits into the socket or acetabulum at the side of your pelvis. When you place your hands on you “hips,” you are actually placing them on the top of your pelvis.

Here is how to get your hips back:

  1. Stand with your feet aligned – outer edges are straight. See building a bunion.
  2. Shift your weight back, all of it, into the center of your heels.
  3. Press the balls of your feet (not your toes) into the mat, without bringing your weight forward.
  4. With your hands on your hips, the top of your pelvis, gently guide your pelvis back** until your hip joint (about where the side seam of your jeans lies) is stacked directly above the side of your knee, which is stacked directly above your the side of your ankle at the maleolus bone, which is directly over the center of your heel.

**It is critical that you don’t rotate your pelvis back (tuck your tail) or forward (Beyonce your butt), but merely shift it back.

When you back your hips up, it may fee like your butt is sticking out behind you. That’s good. That’s where it should be, behind you. It’s why we call it your rear.

The images below will give you a visual of what it looks like to have your hips thrust forward (losing) or properly backed up (winning). This is from one of my favorite books from my favorite biomechanists Katy Bowman. Her book Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Health Feet is my go-to source for most things feet and is absolutely relevant for men too. In fact, I wish she had named it “Every Human’s Guide…” because other than a few strictly female bits, it is applicable regardless of gender.

Pelvis forward of center of gravit

Pelvis forward of center of gravity

In the image above, The stance on the left shows Katy’s center of gravity, her pelvis, is where it belongs. In contrast, she is definitely not vertically stacked in the stance on the right.

hipsback10002

In the image above, Katy’s pelvis is clearly shifted forward until the bulk of her weight is over her forefoot, which, overtime, could have disastrous consequences for her feet. On the right, her hips are backed up and her pelvis is over her knee, ankles, and heels.

hipsback10003

In the image on the left, Katy’s alignment is signaling the bone cells in her hips to build more bone density because the weight of her torso is stacked vertically. Her stance on the  right, overtime, will prove degenerative to her joints.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Backing up your hips is a practice. It takes intention, practice, and time to instill this new alignment habit. Start today.

Namaste, Michele

How to Build a Bunion – Part 1

A bunion is one of the most common foot deformities in adults. It presents as a lateral protrusion of the big toe joint. Inflammation with reddening and swelling, pain, and numbness are often present. In more severe cases, the toe deviates medially toward the other toes, sometimes going completely sideways and moving under them. Bunions impair weight bearing and balance, increase the risk of falling, and worsen physical performance and quality of daily life.

If you are sitting, stand up, walk across the room, come back and remain standing. Really, do this before you read further or you might influence the results.

Now, look at your feet. Do they look like this?

Feet definitely not pointing straight ahead.

Feet definitely not pointing straight ahead.

So what, you might ask? Why does it matter? I counter with a question. Would you want these wheels on your car? I didn’t think so. Our feet, like the wheels on a car, are meant to move forward in a straight line with the toes pointing straight ahead. When your car wheels are out of alignment, it causes improper wear on the tires and problems with steering, vibrating, and pulling of the car to one side. When your feet are misaligned, they too experience improper wear, often in the form of bunions.

If your feet look like the image above, then you are building a bunion every time you take a step. This happens because of the compensatory movements your ankle has to make to keep a foot that is pointing diagonally, heading forward instead. Your ankle/foot complex should be moving back to front.  But your stance is causing an unnatural rocking side to side of your ankle, which is causing a rolling of the foot from outside to inside, which makes you land on and toe off from the side of your big toe rather than from the its proper and padded bottom. Repetitive landing on the bony side of your toe will signal your bone making cells (osteoblasts) to shore up and increase bone density by layering on more bone on the side of your foot. This is how you make bones more dense. Great for hips, not so much for the side of the big toe.This is how you build a bunion.

How should your feet look? How should you align them in standing and walking? More like this:

Feet pointing straight ahead

Feet pointing straight ahead

To align your feet, use their outer edges as markers (not where your toes are pointing)

  1. Stand one foot on the edge of a yoga mat, floor board, or any straight edge
  2. Line up your outer ankle bone (maleolus) with the edge
  3. Line up the center of your pinky toe with the edge
  4. Try to match your other foot to your straight foot

You may discover that once you align the outer edges of your feet that your toes appear to point inward. This is to be expected as your toes have been pulling medially all these years to help your car feet go straight, and have thus re-aligned themselves for this task. Over time, with proper alignment and improved muscle tone (exercising your toes with FootLove), this will improve.

Namaste, Michele