Recent studies show that foot fitness—and these 5 exercises—can help prevent bunions and plantar fasciitis, ward off shin splints, and, quite possibly, save your life.
If you’re like most people, you probably do not spend a ton of time, if any, thinking about the muscles in your feet. In fact, you likely can’t even name them. Think about it: You know your biceps and triceps are in your upper arms. You’re certainly aware that the front side of your thighs is your quads, and the back sides are your hamstrings. But the muscles that lets you lift your big toe and press it against the ground, that’s called…uh….the, um…
Abductor hallucis is the phrase you’re looking for. You were just about to say that, right? You can group it in with a larger formation of muscles known as the plantar intrinsics, a not-particularly-well-understood group that both begin and end within the confines of the foot.
Only recently, researchers have been able to take a detailed look at what, exactly, these muscles do. Among those leading the charge is Luke A. Kelly, PhD, a biomechanics research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia. His work over the past five years has shown that the plantar intrinsics play a crucial role in maintaining balance, especially when you are standing on one leg.
Why is this important? One of the biggest risks you’ll face during your life is falling. In fact, falls are the number one cause of injuries and death among older Americans. Whether you’re a senior or a millennial (or somewhere in between), those tiny-but-crucial muscles in your foot that keep you upright are getting weaker by the moment. A recent study released in March 2017 examined toe flexor (part of the plantar intrinsics) strength in more than 1,400 men and found it was a good indicator of one’s body composition and metabolic health. It also showed that an age-related decline in strength developed earlier in the toe flexors than it did the grip (another effective predictor of a long, healthy life), and that strength dropped more sharply.
All of which is to say that the little muscles in your feet are a bigger deal than you think, and not just because weak plantar intrinsics have been linked to bunions, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints (although all of this is true). The strength of your feet and toes is reflective of your strength overall.
Here are five foot-strengthening exercises that help counteract the dysfunctional loading of our feet, restore them to their proper alignment, and strengthen the muscles helping to keep you upright.