08/13/2015 05:02 EDT | Updated 08/13/2016 05:59 EDT

Put Your Best Foot Forward With These Exercises

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Close up of Hispanic woman's feet in sand on beach

It is time to make your feet a priority, and I am not talking about simply getting regular pedicures! Your feet require more than regular polish application and cuticle care.

The foot is complex; it has 33 joints and huge neurological potential. It is supposed to be able to maneuver and adapt to different terrains and communicate with the brain about whole-body balance and proprioception. Proprioception is the feedback loop between your body and brain that allows your brain to know where your body is in space.

Most of us not only have very weak feet, but we are very disconnected from our feet, in large part because of wearing traditional footwear. Shoes with a tight toe box, rigid bottoms, a high heel and/or unsupported backs don't support the foot's natural adaptive capabilities.

Your shoes affect how your feet connect to the ground and, therefore, what muscles your brain decides to engage, your balance and your alignment.

I am not arguing that everyone should start wearing Vibram FiveFingers running shoes; that is not practical, and in many cases it is not the safest solution.

What I am arguing is that everyone should become more mindful of their gait and shoe selection, and work to strengthen their feet.

If your foot placement is not biomechanically sound, and your feet are not strong, you risk developing anything and everything from hip and knee pain to plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the fascia under the foot).

To strengthen your feet, do these exercises three times per week.

All exercises should be done barefoot.

1. Triangle balance toe lifts

Start by standing on your right leg with your left leg behind you, with only your left toes touching the ground. Engage your right butt cheek. Make sure your knee is not caving in; keep the kneecap in line with your middle toes.

Now, pay attention to your right foot. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed between the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe and your heel. Keep your arch lifted.

Maintain this position as you lift your right toes up and down, leaving the ball of your foot on the floor. Repeat 15 times. Then switch sides.

2. Toe spreading

Spread your toes wide along the floor. Work to spread your toes equally; don't grip with your toes. Close them again. Repeat 10 times.

3. Heel-toe walks

Start by standing. Place your right heel on the ground in front of you. Keep the weight on your heel even side to side. Don't roll your foot in or out. Flex through your toes so the next portion of your body to hit the floor is the ball of your big toe. As you transition to balancing on your right toes, lift your left foot off of the floor. Balance for a moment, then repeat by placing your left heel on the floor in front of you with control. Repeat 10 times.

4. Big-toe lifts

Lift your big toe up and down. Keep your other toes still. If you need to, hold your toes down to teach your brain how to only lift the big toe.

5. Foot massage

Place a tennis or golf ball under the arch of your foot. Put weight on the ball and massage out the bottom of your foot.

Key things to remember

1. The strength of your feet should always be appropriate to your activity level. So, the more stress you are putting on your feet in training, the stronger your feet need to be to avoid injury.

2. Work to wear the most biomechanically sound, adaptive shoe that your body can handle, but keep in mind that you might never be able to wear the most severe forms of minimalist shoes like FiveFingers runners--and that is okay. Every individual has different footwear needs. How your feet will react to a change in footwear will depend on the health of your feet, your alignment, your gait, how often and the intensity with which you move and the terrain you are moving on.

3. Gradually transition into any new footwear. Make sure to strengthen your feet and ankles so they are strong enough to handle being in less supportive shoes.

4. Minimalist shoes allow the foot to adapt and navigate the terrain; they don't confine or warp your feet. Conventional footwear tends to be narrow; it pushes the toes together and has a thick non-flexible sole and an elevated heel.

5. Before attempting to run in a minimalist shoe, try walking in them, or simply walk around your house barefoot. Don't attempt to run "barefoot" before you prepare your feet by walking that way.

6. Think about the position of your feet in every exercise you do. For example, as you do a lunge make sure the weight in your front foot is evenly distributed through the ball of your big toe, the ball of your little toe and your heel.

The main take-away is this: foot-strengthening exercises are for everyone. Whether you want to improve your athletic performance or simply have better balance in the shower, you need to prioritize strengthening your feet and work to become aware of how your feet connect with the ground. You are only as strong as your weakest link. Don't let your feet be your weak link; their small surface area needs to support your entire body! The question is not "Should I wear minimalist or traditional shoes?" All footwear exists on a continuum. Instead of picking a "shoe camp," work toward wearing the most adaptive and flexible, yet supportive, shoe your body can handle.


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