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dancer in ballet shoes dancing in Pointe on a wooden floor

Everyone knows how exercise can give us tighter abs, a firm butt and great biceps, but exercise can also give you strong, healthy feet.

I know most people think their feet get enough exercise, but walking—even a lot—in supportive shoes, does NOT exercise your feet. It may exercise your legs and your triceps, but not the 18 muscles in each arch of our feet or  many of the other muscles entering our feet.

Supportive shoes, arch supports, and orthotics allow our feet to function without needing to work most of our foot muscles. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Worse, without strong muscles our feet are at risk for injury.

In general, shoes are detrimental to feet. Scientists and doctors have known about the effects of footwear on our feet for over 50 years, but most of the public believes feet require expensive, supportive shoes. In fact, in 1949 The Journal of the National Association of Chiropodists published “Survey of Feet in China and India That Have Never Worn Shoes.” The researchers concluded:

“People who have never worn shoes acquire very few foot defects, most of which are painless and non-debilitating. Shoes are not necessary for healthy feet and are the cause of most foot troubles. Footgear is the greatest enemy of the human foot.”

Clearly, the first step to healthy feet is to give up supportive shoes—or at least limit the amount of time your feet are in shoes.

By simply walking barefoot, you will start to use your foot muscles and your feet will soon become stronger. (Note: Only healthy people should give up their shoes. Persons with diabetes, poor circulation, impaired sensation or other serious problems should wear shoes.)

The best way to wean off supportive shoes and increase barefoot activity is by going slowly, and by supplementing barefoot activity with foot exercises.

Now, there are two sources for foot exercises. One is the book Fantastic Feet by Aliesa George and the other is the FootBook by Dr. Paul Conneely.

Fantastic FeetFootBookFantastic Feet and the FootBook are both great little books with plenty of photographs and detailed, easy to understand instructions. Fantastic Feet is for the public, written in layperson’s terms. The FootBook is for physicians, written in medical terms. Some of the exercises in the books are the same but many are different, and for those who are serious about their foot health, both books offer unique and highly beneficial exercises.

These books provide a superb workout for your feet, ankles, toes and arches. In fact, many of the exercises will benefit your entire lower extremity! From each book you can choose a handful of exercises that suits your needs and soon you will be on your way to healthy, strong feet.

Image Credit dancer in ballet shoes dancing in Pointe on a wooden floor Photos by Pond5



Fantastic Feet

  • jim

    hi Dr. Nirenberg,
    i’m a 51 year old male and a lifetime runner (since i was 24). last feb. i developed what i now know is a severe case of plantar fasciitis. i went to the podiatrist and tried orthotics, special shoes, steroid shots, night splints (although i had to stop because these made my legs go numb) rolling on frozen soda bottles, etc. it’s been a year and my PF is still as bad as ever. i read “born to run” and was all excited about the possibility that being barefoot would strengthen my feet and may not only that but actually heal my PF. it did make my feet much stronger but the PF is still hanging on. i ended up on this site because i was searching in google for “coarse gravel”. another book, “the chi of running” suggests that spending 10 or 15 minutes a day walking on coarse gravel would help heal the PF and my question is… have you ever heard of this? and if you have, what exactly is coarse gravel specifically? i have no idea how coarse or where i might find a surface to walk on. thanks for any attention you give these questions.

  • Dr. Nirenberg

    Hi Jim, I am glad you are strengthening your feet through barefoot activity. I have not read Chi Running, however, when it comes to barefoot activity, it is often better to start by strengthening your feet on softer surfaces. In general, surfaces that are softer and more pliable are safer.

    Some people consider gravel softer than concrete, which it is, but sharp stones could injure your foot. If you want to go on gravel, I would wear a minimalist shoe.

    I have not tried going barefoot on gravel, but I suspect it would offer an uneven surface, and mildly uneven surfaces (like hilly backyards) tend to help our foot muscles develop better. Perhaps, this effect is what Chi Running is trying to achieve. You could go on a trail or grass and possibly get a similiar effect without risking a sharp stone injury. I hope this helps.