What Types of Exercises Can Help Your Feet and Legs?

A single step is no simple task. How we walk is the result of many interacting factors including motor function, flexibility, strength, alignment, habitual movement patterns, and overall fitness.

 Our feet are the foundation of this complex collaboration, and the benefits of strong, healthy feet go well beyond greater ease in walking. Data shows that good walking health also supports our overall health. Even for diseases like arthritis, walking can reduce pain, boost health, and improve quality of life.

Walking health is too important to ignore, and focusing on the strength of your feet and legs is imperative to maintaining it. Here are some exercises that will help strengthen your feet and legs so you can make the most of your walk.

Flexibility Exercises For Feet and Legs

Strength without range of motion can only take you so far. Improving flexibility with simple, consistent stretching is a crucial aspect of building functional strength… Being flexible doesn’t mean you have to be able to do splits– it simply means that your joints can comfortably and painlessly move through their entire range of motion. When you’re flexible, you’re less likely to suffer injuries like strains or sprains, in part because your feet and legs can move comfortably through a variety of different positions and motions while you walk.

Good flexibility can also be a sign that even less-frequently used muscles are still healthy and strong. Conversely, poor flexibility means that joints cannot move through their full range, and some muscles might be weak or largely unused. Inflexibility is a common cause of walking-related injuries, like knee and joint pain or ACL tears.

You can improve your flexibility and support the development of functional strength by practising the following:

  • Standing calf stretches: place your palms on a wall with your feet pointing parallel to one another. Bend one leg and extend the other leg behind, planting the heel firmly to the ground. Lean forward slightly, keeping the back leg lengthened and the back heel down.
  • Standing quad stretches: lift one of your legs behind you, bending at the knee. Grab your heel with your hands and pull it gently towards your buttocks. You can also do this lying face down on the floor.
  • Hamstring stretch: from standing, keep both legs lengthened and fold at your waist to reach toward your toes. Don’t pull yourself down—allow your upper body and arms to hang. It’s okay if you can’t touch your toes.
  • Practice rotating your foot through its full range of motion– each foot has 26 bones and 33 joints! Try to move each of them.

And remember: focus on taking full, deep breaths whenever stretching!

Exercises to Improve Your Walking Symmetry

Your feet are designed to work together. Different stride lengths, varying amounts of weight to carry, or uneven degrees of pronation or supination can all lead to discomfort or injury. This is why walking symmetry—or gait symmetry—is so important. If you focus only on building strength without attending to this important aspect of your walk, you may unknowingly contribute to dysfunctional, asymmetrical movement patterns or muscular overcompensation.

As you walk, your strides should be even in length and your foot shouldn’t plop flatly on the ground–you should roll from your heel to your toe, evenly distributing your body weight across the bottom surface of your foot. A lack of symmetry in your walk almost always means that a few muscles are taking on too much responsibility, which can lead to health problems in the future. See a health professional if you notice sudden changes in your walking symmetry, which innovative wearable technology can provide, as this can be a sign of injury or chronic disease.

In addition to improving your cardiovascular health, walking or running on a treadmill can be a great way to improve your gait symmetry. Another helpful exercise is to walk on evenly spaced (a foot or 30 cm works for most people) parallel lines while focusing on your stride length. Practicing this simple exercise can dramatically improve your walking symmetry, especially if you have recently suffered an injury to one of your feet or legs.

 Exercises to Improve Your Posture

Your step could be perfect—light, rolling from your heel to your toe, high frequency—but if your posture is poor, the benefits of a proper step will be limited. Practicing good posture can ease tension in your hips, back, and neck, which can help build stronger overall walking health. Maintaining your walking health can, in turn, positively affect these same regions, and ultimately support better posture. Having poor posture means that other parts of your body are forced to overcompensate, and it often falls on your feet to carry more than their fair share.

Building better posture is relatively simple, but it takes constant practice. Remember: good posture isn’t a position, it’s a continuous, dynamic motion. Stand tall with your eyes up, your collarbones wide, your shoulder blades falling down your back, and your pelvis neutrally aligned. It’s not about straightening your spine, but about bringing greater length to its curves. Whenever you’re walking, remember to focus on your posture. Stretching a bit after sitting is a great place to start. This can help loosen up muscles that haven’t seen much action from the vantage point of your office chair. Building core strength is also an excellent way to improve your posture.

Apply some alignment mindfulness to these exercises for long, strong, supportive posture:

  • Walking, hiking, and running
  • Yoga and Pilates
  • Swimming
  • Pushups, situps, and planks

Strength Exercises for Feet and Legs

Powerful legs and feet are essential to your overall walking health, especially in the long run. Medical conditions like drop foot are often linked to muscular weakness, in addition to neurological issues.

Some great ways to build strength in your legs and feet include:

  • Arch raises or “foot doming”: keeping your foot flat on the floor with your toes lengthened. Imagine bringing the ball of your foot and your heel together, raising your arch away from the floor. Release and go again.
  • Calf raises: from standing in a parallel position with your feet and hips width apart, roll your weight into the balls of your feet to lift your heels. Keep your focus forward and the rest of your body aligned vertically—hips over knees, shoulders over hips. Watch out for supination and pronation throughout, especially when you’re on your toes.
  • Towel toe curls: from a seated position, place a towel on the floor and then step one foot onto the towel. Lift up your toes, spread them wide, and use them to scrunch up the towel and move it towards you. Do around 10 repetitions and then use the tips of your toes to lengthen the towel away from you, smoothing it out again. This exercise works best on a smooth floor and helps develop the strength of the intrinsic muscles of your feet.
  • Squats: standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your feet and toes tracking parallel to one another, hinge at your hips and bend your knees to take your hips down and back, like you’re lowering yourself into a low chair. Keep your chest and focus up, and make sure your weight rocks back into your heels as you go down. Then press your legs into the floor to bring yourself back to your starting position. This is a great exercise for your glutes, in particular.
  • Single leg lunges: from standing in parallel, step one foot behind you into a lunge and bend the front leg. The back leg can also be bent, with both at about a 90-degree angle (make sure that your knee doesn’t go past your toes in the front leg). Keeping your spine straight, press into both legs to bring yourself back to your starting position. Switch legs. Make sure to keep your legs in parallel the whole time.

These are just a few of many possible ways you can strengthen your legs and feet and support your walking health.  Along with these interconnected exercises, innovative new footwear technology can also help educate you on ways to improve your walking style in alignment with your overall health. Whatever you do, continue to care for your legs and feet so that they can continue to take you where you want to go.

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