General Information About Foot and Ankle Fitness

Despite the wealth of knowledge feet provide about overall health and undetected health problems, they are one of the most ignored parts of the body. Even when foot or ankle pain is experienced during running, walking, or other forms of exercise, people tend to overlook it and chalk it up to a normal occurrence during exercise.

The feet and ankles are a complex network of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves that endures constant pressure and stress. Needless to say, the feet are susceptible to pain from injuries and general wear and tear. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, improper foot care during exercise contributes to many of the 300-plus foot problems that can occur.

Aside from checking with a doctor or healthcare professional before starting any exercise or fitness regimen, be sure to have a podiatrist conduct a thorough foot exam to correct and/ or prevent foot problems that may worsen with exercise.

Foot and Toe Stretching Exercises

When it comes to exercise to keep the body physically fit, the feet and toes should not be neglected. They are a complex network of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves that endures constant pressure and stress, making them susceptible to pain from injuries and general wear and tear.

Here are foot and toe strengthening and flexibility exercises suggested by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society to keep the feet and toes healthy and pain-free:

  • Toe squeeze: While sitting, place small corks between your toes, squeeze the toes and hold it for five seconds; repeat 10 times with each foot. This exercise is helpful for hammertoe and toe cramps.
  • Marble pick-up: First, sit down and spread 20 marbles across the floor in a small area. One marble at a time, pick up the marble using the toes and drop it into a bowl; finish all 20 marbles using one foot, then switch to the other foot. This exercise is helpful for hammertoe, toe cramps, and pain in the ball area of the forefoot.
  • Golf ball roll: To massage the bottom of the foot, roll a golf ball under the forefoot for two or more minutes while sitting; repeat with the other foot. This exercise is helpful for arch strain, foot cramps, and plantar fasciitis.
  • Toe raise, point, curl: While sitting, raise both feet onto the forefoot and hold for five seconds; point both feet onto the tips of the toes and hold for five seconds; finally, from a flat foot position, curl the toes of both feet under and hold for five seconds. These exercises are helpful for hammertoe and toe cramps. The toe curls are helpful for plantar fasciitis and shin splints as well.
  • Towel curls: This exercise is similar to the toe curl described above. While sitting, place a towel on the floor; use the toes of both feet to “pick up” the towel, curling it towards you; repeat five times, pausing in between each repetition for a rest. This exercise is helpful for hammertoe, toe cramps, and pain in the forefoot/ ball of foot area.
  • Toe pulls: Sit down and place a thick rubber band around all five toes; spread the toes and hold for five seconds, repeating the exercise 10 times; switch feet and do it again with the other foot. This exercise is helpful for bunions, hammertoe, and toe cramps.
  • Big toe pulls: In a seated position, put the two big toes next to one another and put a thick rubber band around both of them; pull them apart in a motion to separate them, moving each toe toward the little toes; hold the position for five seconds and repeat 10 times. This exercise is helpful for bunions and toe cramps.

In addition, walking barefoot on the beach provides the feet with a massage. Taking a stroll on the sand works out and strengthens the feet and toes.

Ankle and Lower Leg Stretching Exercises

The ankles and lower legs should not be neglected when it comes to stretching before exercise, as they are a complex network of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves that endures constant pressure, impact, and stress during exercise. Therefore, it is important to warm up and stretch the ankle and lower leg muscles, tendons, and joints regularly, as well as before and after exercise.

Attention should be given to the back of the lower leg, as well as the front. Tight calf muscles can lead to foot, ankle, and knee injuries and problems; the Achilles tendon that attaches the calf muscle to the back of the heel should also be stretched.

Here are a few appropriate ankle and lower leg stretches to do before exercising to avoid strain and injury. The pattern of stretching is to stretch, hold, and relax. For repetitive exercises, start with a set of 10 and do two to three sets. Remember to avoid bouncing or pulling, as this can tear muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

  • Calf stretch: While sitting on the floor, extend both legs straight out. Loop a belt or rope around the ball of one foot, pull both ends of the belt or rope, and flex the toes and forefoot towards the knee. Switch legs and repeat.
  • Achilles tendon stretch: Although there are several effective stretches for the Achilles tendon, this is an easy way to stretch the tendon while standing. Stand an arm’s length from a wall, then lean forward and place the hands, shoulder-width apart, on the wall; extend the leg to be stretched to the back, keeping the knee bent and heel firmly on the ground; with the other foot remaining near the wall, lean forward and keep bending the knee and planting the heel until a stretch is felt along the back of the lower leg; slowly lower down to feel the stretch; hold the stretch for 30 seconds, the switch sides and repeat.
  • Step-drop stretch: Using a step (or curb), place the ball of the forefoot on the edge of the step, then slowly lower the heel only; maintain balance by holding a railing or a helping hand, if necessary at first; do not force the heel down, but gradually dip it lower over time; switch feet and repeat.
  • Towel/ belt pull: Sit on the floor, legs stretched out straight in front; using a towel (or belt), loop it around the ball of one foot, then pull the towel ends as you slowly recline the back; keep the position and hold when you feel a pull in calf muscle; switch legs and repeat.
  • Ankle range of motion: Sit in a chair so that the feet are not resting on the floor; using one foot, trace every letter of the alphabet with the big toe; switch feet and repeat.