W hile traveling in California not long ago, I saw a "foot fitness" program advertised at a local gym. "How California," I thought to myself. Is this yet another body part we have to worry about slimming down and buffing up, or are there really benefits to be had by doing regular exercises to strengthen your feet?
Indeed there are, said Noreen N. Oswell, DPM, Chief of Podiatric Surgery at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and partner in The Foot Center in Los Angeles. (She was named one of the country"s "175 Most Influential Podiatrists" by Podiatry Management magazine.) "Strong feet provide a foundation for your body. Feet that are weak in any way can contribute to pain and injury all the way up to your back," she said.
"What I think of first to keep the feet healthy is stretching," Dr. Oswell told me. Stretching your calf muscles -- regularly, and especially before exercising -- can prevent assorted injuries, including shin splints, Achilles tendonitis and a painful condition called plantar fasciitis.
Dr. Oswell recommends a basic, easy "foot fitness" program to help strengthen and stretch your feet. She recommends incorporating these simple exercises into your life a couple of times a week for maximum benefit...
Calf stretch. Stand facing a wall, a little more than arms" length away. Put your arms out straight till they touch the wall, flattening your palms against it (your body will be at about a 45-degree angle). Extend right leg back and keep your heel on the floor. Bend your left knee forward. Your calf will naturally stretch. Hold the position for at least 10 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat.
Towel curls. While seated with legs bent, put a towel under your feet, below the toes, and try to "scrunch it up" with your toes. "It"s a good exercise to strengthen foot and toe muscles," Dr. Oswell told me.
Windshield wipers. Sit in a chair with your feet comfortably hip-length apart, heels resting squarely on the floor. Keeping your heels where they are, bring the two front toes together till they touch, and then angle them away from each other at maximum length in a movement that resembles a "windshield wiper." This works the muscles and tendons that move your feet from side to side.
Heel raises. Stand on your toes, raising both of your heels off the ground. Hold for five seconds. Lower them back down. Repeat 10 times. This is great for your balance -- and, adds Dr. Oswell, even more so if you do it with your eyes closed. For safety sake, do this exercise standing next to a bed foot-board, a sturdy chair or some other stable surface that will help you retain your balance. It"s okay to hold on as long as you keep your weight on your feet.
Toe squeeze. Sit in a chair. Place toe separators between your toes. Squeeze for about five seconds and relax. Repeat 10 times for each foot. "This is great for people with toe cramps," said Dr. Oswell.
Interestingly, Dr. Oswell did not recommend one of my favorite activities -- running or walking on sand at the beach -- at least, not for everyone. "If you don"t have any problems with your feet, it"s absolutely great. But it is not for people with foot problems," she said. "You may be making an existing problem worse."
Since I had the ear of a "foot expert," I couldn"t resist one more question -- about all those specialty shoes now available, for everything from basketball to weight training to trail-running. Is there any difference among them? "Absolutely," she told me. "The right athletic shoes are specifically constructed for the sport you"re doing in them and the forces that occur with that activity. I"m a firm believer in going to specialty stores with all these different kinds of shoes -- especially for running -- because the sales staff is usually very well-trained. Since different activities demand different movement from the feet, it"s helpful to start off on the right foot, so to speak."