Researching barefoot shoes is going to yield some drastically differing viewpoints. Are barefoot shoes the answer to all that ails you? Or are they the devil reincarnate, a surefire way to destroy your foot health?

Researching barefoot shoes is going to yield some drastically differing viewpoints. Are barefoot shoes the answer to all that ails you? Or are they the devil reincarnate, a surefire way to destroy your foot health?

The truth is, it’s your feet that will save you, not the shoes. Yes, I am 100% in the camp of “barefoot shoes or no shoes,” but not strengthening your feet when you switch to minimalist shoes is like wearing a cast for years and then not doing physical therapy when you take it off. Barefoot shoes will only benefit you if your feet can do what your old supportive shoes used to, and that requires MUSCLE. So if you are in search of a sustainable path to foot health then you need to be thinking about more than shoes.

In this post, we cover 5 simple exercises for strengthening, mobilizing, and preparing your feet to be less reliant on supportive shoes. Whether you are a seasoned barefooter, actively transitioning to barefoot shoes, or just wanting to improve your foot health without making any big changes, these exercises are for you.

1. Toe Spacers

Helping your feet spread out can go a long way to reducing pain and increasing stability. Many of us are walking around on effectively bound feet because the muscles are so tightly contracted as to make them immobile – thanks to our tight shoes + weak muscles. Interlacing your fingers between your toes (or trying to! They’ll get there eventually) is the easiest way to increase your foot mobility. Do it while watching TV or during a business meeting (they can’t see under the table…) and hold it for as long as feels comfortable. Aim for at least 30 seconds. If you’re really wanting a better splay, consider Correct Toes. They are a passive way to spread your toes while you go about your business, and once you have worked your way up to it they can be worn all day in your shoes. 

2. Toe-ga

Oh toe-ga, how I love thee! Toe-ga is yoga for your toes and can be done just about any time. I aim to do these exercises sporadically throughout the day, most days of the week. Eventually, it becomes second nature to stretch and move your toes around, and your feet will thank you.

  • Lift, spread, and reach your toes
  • Raise only your big toe while keeping the others down, and then alternate (big toe down, other toes up)
  • Raise each toe individually, then set them back down one at a time
  • Add resistance by pressing your big toe into your finger

Don’t be discouraged if your toes don’t move yet. Doing the first exercise (toe spacers) and trying to move your toes is changing your feet, it just might take a little while before you can tell.

3. Roll Out Your Foot

Rolling out your foot on a ball such as these Yoga Tune-Up balls is an excellent way to break up dense tissue and wake up the nerves.

I try to apply as much pressure as I can (some pain is ok, but nothing that shoots or makes you grimace) and hold it until I feel a releasing sensation. You can press and hold on an especially dense area, and you can roll forward and back, and side to side. If your feet are very tight and painful that might be only a little pressure and it can be a while before you notice a change. Better to go light and often than hard and infrequently.

Besides rolling the foot out on a ball, you can also try stepping on virtually anything that is textured and bumpy. This can ease tension, work muscles that don’t get used often and desensitize the bottoms of your feet. I have this mat in front of my bathroom sink that I step on daily, and I also stand on this mat while I work. In warmer weather, I walk barefoot outside every day and that alone has improved my feet a lot.

4. Short Foot

The short foot is an isometric exercise where you contract the arch of your foot by pressing your toes into the ground, holding it for a few seconds, and then releasing it. When you do this you should feel your arch raise up and lots of muscle action all through your foot. This is a simple, but a great way to increase the muscle tone in your foot. I try to do 10ish reps or until fatigue.

5. Balance

Yes, balancing is foot exercise! I LOVE single-leg balance work for bringing it all together because your feet are connected to your core after all. I am very passionate about balance because I believe it has a huge impact on quality of life, especially as we age. A fall can be deadly, so I’d like to prepare my body today by honing my balance skills as much as possible. Here are a few things to keep in mind while balancing

  • Keep your weight centered (don’t float forward)
  • Keep your entire foot planted (your toes shouldn’t be popping up)
  • Practice often

And here are a few ways to take your single-leg balance to the next level

  • Pass a kettlebell back and forth between your hands
  • Lean forward and try to touch the floor
  • Spread out like a star
  • Stand on a balance ball
  • Use a Mobo Board
  • Add calf raises – calf strength is super important!

6. Extra Credit: Squat, Stand, or Sit on the Floor

The truth is, that how we sit, stand, and squat (or not squat) all affects our foot function. If you sit the majority of your day in one position it will inhibit your movement, so try to add a variety of poses to your life. Stand often, sit on the floor instead of in a chair, and squat regularly to keep all your parts limber!