When it comes to your feet, you want to do everything you can to keep them healthy and in top shape. This is especially important for people who have flat foota condition where one or both feet have no arch when standing.
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Although most people with flat feet do not have significant health problems, the condition still requires extra care and attention, especially for those who are active and stand on their feet often. From strengthening flat feet and affected muscles and tendons to knowing what to avoid, awareness is key.
To learn more about strengthening exercises for flat feet, as well as what not to do for flat feet, we spoke with physical therapist Michael Bogden, PT, DPT.
What is the difference between fallen arches and flat feet?
It’s common to hear flat feet used interchangeably with the term “fallen arches.” The only real difference, according to Bogden, is when the condition occurs. “Flat feet are congenital, a condition you’re born with,” he says, “while fallen arches usually refer to a structural change in the foot that has occurred over time.”
Since flat feet and fallen arches are similar, the approach to treating and exercising them is often the same.
Is exercise good for flat feet?
In short, yes, exercise is good for flat feet. Bogden notes, “As long as you are pain free and progress is increasing in activities or exercise in moderation, there is no reason to limit yourself.”
He adds that exercise is the best thing you can do for flat feet because it creates a lot of muscle support to compensate for structural instability that doesn’t exist. “Bones and ligaments don’t provide the amount of structural support that you would want them to provide,” says Bogden. “It’s the same as strengthening your rotator cuff when you have instability in your shoulder.”
It is not uncommon for a person with flat feet to be reluctant to walk barefoot or to do without any support. But, it is essential to get some sort of exercise. “If you’re constantly using support, those muscles won’t get the necessary work they need to be strong, leading to weakness that can make instability worse,” says Bogden.
Again, as long as there’s no pain and exercise progress in moderation to gauge how well your feet tolerate the exercise, he says it’s fine to be as active as you feel comfortable with.
Strengthening exercises for flat feet
Although there are many strengthening exercises for flat feet, it’s important to consult your healthcare professional, podiatrist, or physical therapist before you begin. “Since there is a wide range of conditions for flat feet, it’s important to understand where you fall on that spectrum,” says Bogden.
“Think of it like this: There’s a range of different doses for any medication, so you need to speak with your doctor to figure out the best place to start,” he says. ” It’s the same thing here. Should you start with no weight bearing exercises or can you add weight bearing and dynamic movements to the exercises? »
Here are some of the exercises that those with flat feet should consider.
Also known as “foot doming”, an arch lift involves keeping your feet flat on the floor and raising the arch of your foot as much as possible, rolling the weight of your foot outward while keeping the heel and toes on the ground. You can perform the exercise standing or sitting.
“It strengthens the intrinsic muscles of the foot, and research shows it helps other conditions like plantar fasciitis,” says Bogden.
Another exercise that strengthens the intrinsic (deep) muscles in your feet is to use your toes to pick up marbles. Place 10 to 20 marbles on the ground next to a bowl. While seated, use your toes to grab each marble and place it in the bowl. Bogden adds that picking up a towel with your toes can give you a similar workout.
An easy exercise, start with your feet flat on the floor and lift your heels up putting the weight on the balls of your feet. Hold the position for a few seconds and lower yourself slowly.
Heel walking and toe walking
Walking across the room on your heels with your toes in the air can strengthen the muscles in your ankles and feet. Repeating the exercise on your toes with your heels up (essentially tiptoe walking) can do the same thing.
Massage — do not stretch — flat feet
Generally, stretching is part of a regular exercise routine, keeping the muscles relaxed. But in the case of flat feet, Bogden says stretching is a bad idea. “Because there is already some instability, stretching can lengthen your muscle tissue and cause further instability.”
Instead, he says massage should be part of your regimen to help prevent foot muscles from becoming too tight. “We want to address those tight spots in the muscles, but not in a way that will make them longer or less able to provide support,” he says.
Some of these options include:
- Massage the area with your thumbs.
- Gently roll your arch over a golf ball.
- Dry switch.
- Vibrating massages like with massage guns.
The key, says Bogden, is to treat not just your foot, but also your calf and even your spine because of how certain muscles — like the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, the large muscles at the back of your leg — connect your calf to your foot. It’s a holistic approach that keeps your lower body both strong and tension-free to alleviate problems caused by flat feet.
Aerobic exercises for fallen arches
It’s entirely possible to perform aerobic exercise with flat feet, says Bogden, as long as you start out slow and work your way up. “Start with exercises that will reduce pressure on your feet, such as biking, swimming, or rowing.”
As you feel more comfortable and your feet adjust to the activities, he recommends trying to transition to exercises that may have more weight-bearing aspects, such as an elliptical machine. .
When it comes to any type of walking program, Bogden says it’s good to start right away, but start with short distances first. “Even if you have flat feet, you probably walk every day, so as long as you don’t do it for much longer durations than you usually do every day, you’re fine.”
Build up those longer distances at a slow but steady pace. “It’s no different than those couch run programs at 5K,” he says. “You slowly increase the distance for a week or two, reduce for a recovery week, then start increasing your distance again.”
The easiest place to start, however, is at home. “You can start walking around your house barefoot, see if your feet can tolerate those short distances, and start building the strength and endurance to increase your activity even further,” he advises.
What exercises to avoid with flat feet?
As with knowing where to start, the exercises you should avoid depend on where you are on the spectrum in terms of your foot condition and strength. “Nothing should be avoided if you’ve made it through and haven’t had any pain or other unwanted symptoms like severe tightness,” says Bogden.
Still, it’s best to be careful with exercises that can get aggressive when jumping and add more stress on your feet. “With workouts like basketball or running, you have to be careful,” notes Bogden. “It’s not that they should be avoided, it’s just that you need to give your body time to adjust to such a load on the muscles.”
For example, if your body isn’t ready for you to run a 10k or play a basketball game, the muscles in your feet, ankles, and legs can be severely overstretched for that. what they are used to, which causes tugging and injury.
Bogden adds: “Any increase in activity that is significantly greater than usual will put someone at risk such as excessive pain, muscle strain or injury.”
Should special shoes or support equipment be used with flat feet?
While it’s always best to talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist about which equipment will work best for you, Bogden says there are a few things that should help those with flat feet exercise safely.
“Make sure your shoe comes with a toe box that allows your toes to splay or spread out,” he recommends. Having the shoe’s toe box too narrow can change the way your foot contacts the ground and supports your body, which can lead to further injury.
Feel free to try over-the-counter arch supports as well, but keep one important question in mind when using them: Do you feel better when using them?
“People sometimes want to force their body to use these tools, but if it supports your muscles and puts your foot in a good position, you should feel better using them, not worse,” Bogden says. If you feel less well after giving them a fair assessment ranging from a few hours to a few days, stop using them and see your doctor or physiotherapist.
The important thing is that you are providing your feet with some form of exercise and not relying entirely on these supports all the time. “If you’re still supporting your muscles with orthotics, those muscles aren’t getting the training they need, so they’ll have a limited ability to be strong and provide the much-needed support your foot needs to make up for the lack of support. .commonly supplied by bones and ligaments,” says Bogden.
“Whether it’s aerobic exercise or even walking around your house barefoot, like all muscles, make sure your feet get exercise,” he says. “Just give your body more time to adjust to the extra challenge these foot muscles have, and understand that some tension will be part of the process. And that can be helped by a variety of approaches to help relax tight muscles, such as massage from a therapist or self-massage options.