The pain in my ankles was excruciating, every step brought tears to my eyes, and I was hobbling around like a decrepit old lady instead of the teenager that I really was. The diagnosis, after x-rays and nuclear dye tests was degenerative arthritis in my ankles – at the age of only sixteen!
Wondering if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life, I was forced to retired from my sport of competitive gymnastics and do nothing that required any pressure on my feet, so that they could hopefully heal. This was my personal introduction to the importance of healthy feet.
Over the past twenty-six years I’ve learned a lot more about how to care for my feet, listen to my body, and as a result have had zero problems with my ankles. I’m now running three or more miles several days a week, and feel blessed and fortunate that the pain and injury I experienced as a teenager – is now only a memory.
My dance and movement background, as well as Pilates teaching experience has provided wonderful layers of insight into the benefits of exercising the feet. While I have never intended to become a “Foot Fitness Expert,” it has been rewarding to see the benefits and improvements both myself and my clients have had by increasing awareness, and gaining proper strength, flexibility and mobility of the lower leg, ankle, arches and toes.
To get the motivation we need for self-improvement, it’s helpful to:
- Identify the problem.
- Learn what agitates or aggravates it.
- Learn what to do (and not to do) to solve the problem.
- Understand the reasons WHY making a change is important.
Whether it’s for health improvement, exercise, diet or any goal you’ve got your eye on, it’s the benefit of action that’s really important and the motivating factor for learning new things. The following are questions that have been asked to me regarding Pilates and the benefits of Foot Fitness. I hope that the information in this article will be useful and inspirational for you to take some time to treat your feet, and incorporate some specific foot health improvement exercises into your weekly workout program so you can enjoy the benefits of WHOLE-Body Health.
Question: Why is foot fitness important?
Aliesa George: Our feet are the most used, and probably the least taken care of part of the body. We expect our feet to propel us through space and get us where we want to go every day of our lives. The arches of our feet are designed to provide us with flexibility, help absorb shock, distribute the weight of the body, and help us adapt to surface changes when walking, running, and climbing.
The importance of exercise to maintain good health seems to apply to all our other muscle groups, but somehow our feet get forgotten! When you go to the gym and workout there are machines to stretch and strengthen all the other muscles in the body, but nobody thinks about doing anything for their feet.
When we’re young, our bodies are pretty forgiving. We’re strong, flexible, and can pretty much do what we want pain-free and worry-free. Paying attention to how our feet feel isn’t high on the priority list. As we get older – the need to maintain balance and avoid falling, desire to stay mobile and self-sufficient, hope that we won’t have to rely on a cane, walker, or wheelchair and suddenly what’s going on at the bottom of our legs starts to get our attention. Most people don’t realize that there are simple exercises they can do for improved foot health.
Question: How can weak feet affect other parts of your body?
AG: Weak feet can affect absolutely every other part of our system. If the muscles of the feet aren’t working properly to hold the bones of the feet and ankles in correct alignment, it’s a good bet that nothing stacked above the feet is aligned correctly either. This means the right muscles aren’t working when walking, standing, sitting, or exercising. During everything we do, we are then placing added stress on every joint. Over time, this misalignment and poor muscle use can result in foot, ankle, knee, hip, sacro-illiac joint, lower-mid-upper back, shoulder, and neck pain. (Did I leave any part out? – Improperly balanced feet affect the whole body!)
Question: Do people overlook the strength of their feet? Why?
AG: Definitely the answer is yes. I think the general population overlooks exercising their feet. Most people assume the muscles are being strengthened appropriately during daily activity. Not everyone realizes that poorly fitted shoes, (or shoes that are worn out – but still being worn), high-heels, stiff ankles, hyper-mobile ankles, and jobs that require more time seated than standing aren’t contributing to healthy and happy feet.
When our feet start hurting – the typical first fix is a brace or arch support inserts for our shoes. If this doesn’t solve the problem, medication and surgery seem to be the next logical step. What people don’t realize is there are a lot of very simple exercises that they could do to get the muscles working more efficiently. If our muscles are strong enough to hold the bones of the feet in their proper place – the feet should feel great! A lot of athletic shoes are now designed to do the work, holding our feet from rolling in our out, and helping to rock the sole of the foot across the ground as we walk and run. While this extra support from our shoes can be a benefit – we may be relying on our shoes to do all the work instead of the foot muscles. The result of this is that the muscles of the feet may continue to get weaker. This means taking time to exercise and strengthen our feet is even more important.
Question: What are common reasons that people experience foot pain?
AG: Poor-fitting or uncomfortable shoes, past injuries – like sprained ankles or broken toes, unconsciously standing on one leg more than two, locked knees, standing more on the inside or outside of the foot, standing with the legs too far apart, lack of mobility in the ankles, feet, and toes, lack of foot strength, standing and walking incorrectly, the development of blisters and calluses due to uneven weight-bearing on the feet, bunions, hammer-toes, a sore knee, hip, lower-back, shoulder or neck pain. Sometimes, the problems may have started at the foot – and the result is a problem somewhere else in the body. Sometimes, the problem or injury may have been somewhere else, but by protecting our injury – we unconsciously create foot problems or pain.
Question: How can Pilates help with foot pain?
AG: Pilates is great for helping alleviate foot pain. First of all, as Pilates teachers we’re looking at the whole-body: standing and seated posture, movement and daily life habits, to notice each client’s strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, since so many of the Pilates exercises can be done in a low, to non-weight bearing position, it takes the pressure off the feet while the whole body is getting stronger and learning how to maintain better alignment. Thirdly, we’re exercising without shoes! The whole foot gets to play an important role, and participate in each exercise.
The brain is busy becoming more conscious about which muscles are working, what’s too tight, what’s too weak. This active thought, paying attention to the details of what’s happening from our head to our feet, gives us an opportunity to make corrections with less pressure on our joints. The goal is to find the muscles, parts and pieces that need to get stronger or more flexible, learn what to do and why it’s important, practice long enough to develop new muscle habits, and then be able to transfer those new habits back into our standing activities and daily life.
For many clients, having a good Pilates teacher to help identify the habits that contributed to their foot pain in the first place, understanding that they can exercise without increased pain, and learning that there may be specific exercises that will reduce or alleviate their pain – all of a sudden, you’ve got an enthusiastic, motivated, and empowered Pilates student with a new lease on life. For clients with knee, hip, and back problems, once their feet become stronger and more flexible, and they are bearing their body weight more correctly and evenly, a lot of the time other aches and pains are alleviated too.
Question: How can Pilates help strengthen already health feet?
AG: Why do we exercise anyway? To get slimmer, stay in shape, improve muscle strength and tone, increase flexibility? The number one reason to exercise – improve our health! If you already have healthy feet – don’t you want to keep them that way? Why wait until something hurts and then go looking for the magic solution. Regular Pilates matwork and equipment sessions are the best gift we can give ourselves to maintain great whole-body health – including our feet. I know in my own personal experience practicing Pilates – that for as much as I know, and as strong and flexible as I think I am, there is always more to learn and do to keep me challenged and improving. Using Pilates to maintain the strength of healthy feet will ensure better balance as we get older, help to maintain good posture, reduce the chance of injuries, and make all of the activities we enjoy easier.
Question: People don’t often think of Pilates as a remedy to foot ailments or as a way to strengthen feet. Why not? Why should they?
AG: I think that there are still a lot of people that only know Pilates as “Matwork” and don’t realize that the Mat exercises are only half of the Pilates system. With this limited understanding of Pilates, it’s easy to see how they wouldn’t be familiar with the benefits of using Pilates as a remedy for foot ailments. The perk of matwork if you have foot pain – is you can stay completely off your sore feet and still get a great workout! The benefit of using the entire Pilates system is that, with the equipment, you can work your ankles, feet, arches, and toes against the resistance of the springs, in all sorts of different positions with varying degrees of weight bearing, to actively improve the strength of your feet.
Question: Can you give me a specific anecdote of a client who had a foot issue and how Pilates helped?
AG: I have so many clients who have had foot issues that have been benefited by their Pilates training, it is difficult to pick out only one…
I have one female client who has a myriad of health challenges, one of which is severe arthritis in her feet. She has had special rocker bars added to the soles of all her shoes so that she can walk at all. Walking was very painful when she started Pilates. This limited her ability to go to the grocery store (too much time on her feet to walk through the store). She could barely walk a block and be able to get out of bed the next day. A long-time activity that she had enjoyed was Middle –Eastern dancing. Her ability to attend class and perform was quickly ceasing because it hurt too much to attend class – even if she wore shoes while everyone else went barefoot.
Because it hurt so much to bear weight or wiggle her toes mobility was declining rapidly. I started her Pilates program with absolutely no pressure on her feet, and progressed to weight bearing on the heels and arches. Over time, a very few number of exercises were added to her program with light resistance on the toes. She was elated! Even working the Pilates system and avoiding pressure on the balls of her feet – the rest of her body was getting stronger. This new strength made it easier to stand and walk for longer periods without pain. She was so proud the day she had a dance performance and had to park the car two blocks away, walk, perform, and walk back to the car. She did it all pain free, AND felt good the next day.
I had another client, who started Pilates at the age of twelve. She has Cerebral Palsy. When she started her flexibility was zero. The muscles of her legs were constricted because of the CP. She was very knock-kneed, and couldn’t even get her heels to the floor. All her walking was on her tip-toes with her feet and knees turned in. She spent a lot of time tripping over her own feet. Balancing was impossible, and falling was a regular occurrence. Her parents were adamant about not doing the heel-cord release surgeries that they typically do on children with CP to lengthen the Achilles Tendon while they are growing. We dove into a Pilates program with a private lesson only one day a week. (She had a one-hour drive, one way to get to the studio from the town she lived in.) Not really knowing if Pilates could make a difference, but willing to give it a go, I developed a Reformer and matwork program for her with the goal of increasing her flexibility and if possible, change her leg, ankle and foot alignment. She graduated from College last year, and is still consistently practicing Pilates.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege to watch her change her gait from a toe-in position, to straight ahead. She tried out for the basketball team in High School, enrolled in ballet lessons (a toe-out activity), learned how to roller skate in college (you can’t skate if your feet face each other!), attended homecoming and school dances wearing high-heeled shoes, was able to wear flip-flops (the fad shoe for teenagers), has the ability to balance on one leg, can bend over and touch her toes, she even participated in workshops to become a Pilates teacher. Even though she decided teaching Pilates wasn’t what she wanted to do, her whole life and belief in what she CAN do changed as her body changed with Pilates.
My very favorite story is a comment her grandmother made one day while she was waiting for her to finish her session. She said, “I went to see my granddaughter perform in a play last weekend. I had to go back and see a second performance, because I missed her when she walked across the stage. I was looking for my granddaughter with the funny walk, and now she walks just like everybody else!” This gave me goose bumps, because I realized how life-changing her Pilates training really was. The changes this child has received through the support of her parents, and her commitment to her own personal health by sticking with Pilates from the age of twelve into her twenties helped her make some really amazing body changes. It has empowered her to believe she can do anything she wants, helped her realize that she is just like everybody else, and shown her the rewards of commitment and dedication to Pilates for a life-time of good health and made some major changes in the , strength, flexibility, alignment and mobility of her feet.
Question: What advice do you have for people about how they should care for their feet? Why they should worry about their feet? And why they should consider adding foot exercises to their Pilates practice or weekly workout routine?
AG: First, I wouldn’t worry about your feet. Why waste time worrying….take action! Learn and do things to keep your feet healthy. We only have one pair of feet – I don’t think foot replacement surgery is an option yet! If you want your feet to carry you around from youth to old age – take care of them. Notice how you wear out your shoes, where you typically carry the weight on your feet? Where are your calluses? What direction are your toes facing? Are the bones of your feet stacked correctly? Do your shoes fit? Do you know how to tie your shoes to keep the muscles of your arches lifting instead of relaxed? How old are your shoes? Do you replace them at least every 6 months? Do you have a good footprint when you step out of the shower? How often to your feet ache? How often do you have foot cramps? Knee pain? Hip or back pain? Can you move all the joints of your toes like you move your fingers – freely and easily? When you exercise, do you ever do anything specifically for your toes and feet?
Our feet can always benefit from a good massage – treat your feet to a little relaxation. And, they need to exercise! If you’re doing Pilates and working out on the Reformer, you are getting some great footwork with the first four warm-up footwork exercises, the stomach massage series, and running. (There are many other Pilates exercises that strengthen your feet. The ones listed above give you a good opportunity to really pay attention to what the feet are doing, while working through a full range of motion against the springs. The Pilates Foot Corrector device is great also, for strengthening the soles of the feet.
If you’re looking for supplemental training, and exercises you can do without equipment, I would recommend getting a copy of Fantastic Feet! Exercises to Strengthen the Ankles, Arches, and Toes. The Fantastic Feet book has very simple exercises for foot fitness that readers can learn and do at home. The illustrations and instructions are easy to follow and there are lots of exercises to choose from for good variety in developing an excellent foot fitness program.
Question: Anything else you’d like to add on the topic of foot fitness as it relates to Pilates?
AG: Joseph Pilates really was a genius. He saw the need for so many things that were important for the maintenance of a healthy body. Aside from the 500 + exercises on the Reformer, Trapeze Table, Chairs, Barrels, and Matwork that benefit improved foot fitness, he invented two other pieces of apparatus specifically for strengthening the feet. (The Foot Corrector, and Toe Tensometer.) When you consider the fact that Pilates is efficient movement for whole-body health – it makes sense that incorporated with that are exercises for the whole body – toes too! I believe that Joseph Pilates wanted us to use his system to maintain good health. If you’re not healthy to start with, the exercises in the Pilates system can help change the quality of your life to what ever degree you’re willing to focus and put your energy into improving it. If you are healthy and fit – I think that Joseph Pilates hoped that you would use his system to keep your instrument finely tuned to enjoy a long, healthy, and happy life.
Our feet are a long ways away from our brain! Taking the time to pay attention to what’s going on at the far end, means that to get there, we’re paying attention to everything that’s going on in-between too. What better way to insure whole-body health then taking time to stretch and strengthen our ankles, arches, and toes so we can enjoy good health from the tips of our toes to the top of our head!