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How To Unsquish Your Toes

by | Apr 1, 2015 | Exercises | 2 comments

April is National Foot Health Awareness Month – in the US, anyway. In Canada it’s in May. However, since most of us are so unaware of foot health, perhaps adding a month of pre-awareness will actually be a good thing.

“Two months for feet!”

That will be my rallying cry. And I think it’s a good one – feet are so important to whole body health, and they’re so neglected and misused, that they deserve more than a single month.

What makes them such a big deal? For starters, they contain a quarter of all the bones and joints in your body. This is a clue that they’re a big deal – your body doesn’t waste resources on stuff that doesn’t matter.

What’s the point of having such highly engineered feet? They are designed to act as shock absorbers – so that if you step on an uneven surface, they will conform to this load and keep the rest of you level, instead of your ankles, hips or spine having to pick up the slack. Not a big deal if your ankles, hips and spine have to distort once in a while, but if they do it on every step, that’s a lot of wear and tear they weren’t built to handle.

And because your feet connect you to the ground, when they don’t work right, there’s a follow-through effect throughout the whole body. Stiff, unfunctional feet tend to go hand in hand with hip and back pain, as well as foot pain of course! Losing foot health tends to mean losing the rest of your health too, since it limits your movement so much. Plus when you lose mobility, you lose a lot of what makes life fun. Being able to go for a hike, or run out for groceries or just to go for a walk in the evening with a friend.

For such important components of the body’s mechanical system, the way we neglect and misunderstand them is pretty amazing. The shoes we wear have high heels, stiff soles, toe spring, and narrow toe boxes. In other words, they’re pretty much the exact opposite of our actual feet. Stuffing feet into shoes for your entire life is probably the reason your feet hurt now (walking only on flat surfaces, messed up walking mechanics and sitting in chairs are also contributing factors).

The good news is that our feet will forgive us for the horrible things we’ve done to them if only we start taking care of them now. That’s why I’m using the next month… the next two months!….to share some of my favorite foot tips and exercises. 15 minutes a day will transform your foot health!

Today, three ways to unsquish your toes. The ones that have been deformed by those narrow toe boxes. Below, a stretch, an exercise, and a shortcut! Do all three daily for best results.

Complete with nail polish so you can tell which are fingers and which are toes!

Complete with nail polish so you can tell which are fingers and which are toes!

1. Shake hands with your feet. 

Just like it sounds – you’re going to sit down, ideally on the floor with an untucked pelvis, and interlace the fingers of your right hand under and through the toes of your left foot. If this is very tight, go slow and be patient – don’t force it. As your muscles relax, you’ll be able to really interlace your fingers right down at the bottoms of the toes. Hang out there for a bit, then play around with spreading your toes and fingers at the same time, and gently twisting, flexing and extending through the toes and forefoot. 90 seconds is a good target time here, but more is great.

Spread 'em!

Spread ’em!

2. Spread your toes.

This is a shockingly hard exercise so I’m going to give you three levels. But what’s awesome is that you can practice it any time you’re barefoot. I like to do it when I’m waiting for the fridge water dispenser to give me my water.

A. Easiest – Sitting in a chair, pelvis untucked. Lift your toes up (make sure to keep the ball of your foot planted firmly on the ground). Now, spread them as wide as you can. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat 3-5 times.

B. Medium – Standing. Otherwise exactly the same as #1.

C. Most challenging – Sitting or standing, but keep your toes flat on the ground – don’t let them lift as you spread them.

3. Awesome shortcut.

The nicest thing about toe spreading is that you can buy stuff that will help do it for you. I wear a pair of My Happy Feet socks every night (confession – my toes are tight enough that it’s taken about a year to be able to wear them all through the night – it’s important not to go too far too fast!).  And Correct-Toes can be worn around the house or when walking if you have the right shoes (Lems are good for this). Toe spreaders not only help re-align your feet, but they instantly improve circulation as well – check out this amazing set of photos!

These simple exercises can make a world of difference for unhappy, overly squished feet and toes. They work best if you’re also making good shoe choices – the subject of the next part of my Foot Month series. Happy stretching!


another-round-headshotPetra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. When she's not teaching, you'll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.