If you suspected the foundation of your house was less than rock solid, you'd probably have trouble sleeping at night. When it comes to your body, your feet and toes are no less important. The bones, muscles and ligaments of your feet absorb tremendous stress over the course of a day. Targeted exercises prepare your feet and toes to handle that stress so you can perform with more power and avoid painful conditions such as tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.
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Mighty Little Muscles
The human foot has many tiny muscles -- referred to as intrinsic muscles -- that serve a variety of purposes. Unlike the foot's extrinsic muscles, which originate outside the foot, intrinsic muscles are located within the foot itself. Because feet aren't generally used for intricate work, intrinsic foot muscles tend to be less developed than the intrinsic muscles of the hand. However, these small muscles play a critically important role in keeping you upright and stable. They help support your arches, keep your toes properly aligned, contribute to balance and propel you through space. Weakness in the intrinsic muscles can lead to poor foot function and a host of foot deformities and disorders.
Intrinsic muscle exercises typically involve movements such as curling, scrunching, shortening, spreading or tapping the foot or toes. Examples include curling the toes under to grab and release a towel, fanning the toes as far as possible outward and repeatedly tapping the big toe on the ground while keeping the remaining toes elevated. Research appearing in 2011 in "Physical Therapy in Sport" suggests that some exercises are more effective than others at strengthening specific foot muscles. The purpose of that study was to compare activity of the abductor hallucis muscle -- the muscle responsible for moving the big toe outward -- during two classic foot exercises. Researchers concluded that drawing the ball of the foot toward the heel -- known as the Janda short foot exercise -- was more effective at activating the abductor hallucis than toe curling.
Toys, Trinkets and Terrain
You can use a resistance band or common household items to boost the intensity -- and entertainment value -- of your foot workout. For example, loop the resistance band around the bottoms of your toes, pull back on the ends of the band and press your toes into the band. Alternatively, you can spread marbles, crayons, dice and other small objects on the floor and use your feet to transfer those objects to a bucket or bowl. Remove the large, wide rubber band from your morning newspaper, wrap it around your toes and spread your toes outward against the band's resistance. Take a barefoot walk on the beach or in your child's sandbox. The uneven terrain serves as resistance for the muscles of your feet. As you tread across the sand, try grabbing at it with your toes.
Prepping and Pampering
Before exercising your feet and toes, remove your shoes and socks and do some light prances around the room to warm up and increase circulation to your lower limbs. To further prepare the foot muscles for activity, do a dynamic foot and ankle stretch, such as writing the alphabet in the air with your big toe. After your foot workout, gently massage the bottoms of your feet with your thumb or roll the sole of each foot over a golf or tennis ball. Aim to work out your feet three or four times a week, before or after cardio- or strength-training sessions or on rest days. If you've injured your foot in the past, speak to your doctor or physical therapist about the advisability of specific exercises.