You’re on your feet all day, and they do even more for you when you engage in physical activity — especially high-impact activities like running, tennis, or sports that involve jumping. While working out your arms, legs, and abs is excellent, your feet deserve just as much attention. The tiny muscles around each foot and ankle promote balance, so exercising them can help improve your stability and reduce your risk of injuries like ankle sprains and plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the fibrous tissue in the sole of the foot). 

The following exercises can assist you in developing improved strength and flexibility for your toes, ankles, calfs, achilles tendon, sole and top of the foot.

Ankle Range of Motion 

Works the small muscles around the ankle. 

  1. Sit at the edge of your bed with your feet slightly off the edge. 
  2. Rotate each ankle several times clockwise and counterclockwise. 
  3. You can also trace the letters of the alphabet with your toes to increase your range of motion. 

Ankle Inversion 

These exercises strengthen the small muscles that move your foot inward. 

  1. While sitting in a chair, rest your right foot on your left knee, letting your right knee fall outward. 
  2. Press on the inside of your right foot while pressing your foot against your hand. 
  3. Repeat ten times and then switch legs.

Toe Curls

Strengthen the plantar flexor muscles in the soles of your feet, which you use to press your foot downward away from the body

  1. While sitting with both feet flat on the floor, place a towel or cloth under one foot. 
  2. Curl your toes and grab the center of the towel, curling it toward you. 
  3. Relax and repeat with the other foot. 

Toe Pointing 

Also known as plantar flexion, this exercise stretches the tops of your feet while strengthening your ankle muscles. 

  1. Sit with your legs straight in front of you. 
  2. Point each foot and then relax. 
  3. You can add extra resistance by using the rubber exercise band. Loop the band around the ball of your foot and hold the other end in your hand. Point your foot, extending the band. Repeat on the other side. 

Calf Raises 

These exercises strengthen your calves as well as your feet. 

  1. Stand while holding a chair or table lightly for balance. 
  2. Rise up on your tiptoes. 
  3. Lower your heels to the floor. 
  4. Repeat ten times. 
  5. You can do this exercise with both feet at the same time, or for extra strengthening you can lift one foot off the floor while doing calf raises on the other side. Then switch legs. 

Ankle Dorsiflexion

This exercise works the muscles at the top of the foot around the ankle. It is excellent for preventing shin splints. 

  1. Sit with your legs straight in front of you. Support your back against a wall if necessary. 
  2. Flex your right foot, bring your toes toward you ten times. 
  3. Repeat with your left foot. 
  4. You can also perform this exercise with extra resistance by using a looped rubber exercise band. Loop the band around the base of a chair or table leg and wrap the other end around the top of your foot. With the band extended, pull your foot toward you. Repeat on the other side.

Achilles Tendon Stretch

Stretches the tendon that connects the base of your calf muscles to your heel. This exercise reduces the risk of Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis

  1. Stand with your hands against a wall and your feet flat. 
  2. Stretch one leg straight behind you, keeping both feet flat on the floor. Bend the knee of your front leg slightly. 
  3. Lean toward the wall, pressing your back heel down. You’ll feel a stretch in your back calf and behind your ankle. Hold for 30 seconds. 
  4. If you bend your back leg slightly and lean back into it, you’ll feel even more stretch in the Achilles tendon. 
  5. Switch legs and repeat on the other side. 

Ball Roll 

Stretches the plantar fascia on the sole of the feet, relieving and preventing plantar fasciitis

  1. Sit in a chair with both feet on the floor. 
  2. Place a golf ball or tennis ball under the foot. 
  3. Roll your foot back and forth over the ball for about two minutes, allowing it to massage the arch of your foot. 
  4. Repeat with the other foot. 
  5. You can also roll your foot over a frozen water bottle. The cold feels especially good if you have plantar fasciitis. 

Top of Foot Stretch

This exercise extends the muscles along the top of your foot, which are often neglected and can become tight. 

  1. While kneeling, sit back on your heels with your feet tucked under you and your toes pointing behind you. 
  2. Support yourself with your hands pressing into the floor if your knees are uncomfortable.
  3. You should feel the stretch along the tops of your feet. 

Should you exercise if your feet hurt?

It depends on what’s causing your discomfort. If your feet are tired, exercise is safe to do, but you can take it easy. If you have arthritis in your feet or ankles, you may feel some pain at first, but exercise will warm up the joints and make you feel better. If you’re feeling pain due to an injury like a twisted ankle or inflammation such as plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis, you should take a break and see a physical therapist to learn what you should do and when you can exercise again. 

Finally, don’t discount the power of the right footwear. Choosing shoes that cushion and support will go a long way to making sure you keep your feet comfortable and healthy.

Written by: Dr. Matthew James, PT, DPT