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Your Second Core

For years, our core muscles have been the focus of workout attention. For those who have failed to find them, these are the muscles that wrap around our middles like a corset and, through workouts aimed at engaging even the most deeply embedded of them, we have been promised better posture, flatter stomachs and more supple movement. Now there is a new core workout and what’s surprising is that the core muscles being targeted are not to be found in your trunk, but in your feet.

Improving foot core stability is the latest fitness target among those preoccupied with avoiding rounded shoulders, back pain and falls prevention.

Our feet comprise four layers of muscle and soft tissue, there are muscles at the top and bottom of the foot that help to lock it into place and keep us upright, in short the foot’s core supports the body.

A strong, healthy foot has a moderately high arch, no over­pronation — rolling inwards — and some natural spreading of the toes. In a paper published three years ago in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a team of Harvard researchers define the central core of the foot as the range of muscles intertwining to maintain this raised arch, providing us with the stability needed to hold us in good posture or to support even the most basic movement patterns, such as walking.

In evolutionary terms, the foot developed in response to the ­demands placed on it as humans walked and ran. Its intricate musculature connects to muscles in the ankle, lower leg, back and abdomen.

When we are doing something as simple as standing up, it is the feet that act as a solid base, when we walk or run, it is the muscles in the feet that provide the ability to push off and move forward. Like any other muscle, when the foot’s core is underused it becomes weak and unable to function as it should.

As the Harvard researchers put it, our “foundation becomes ­unstable and malaligned” and the result, at the very least, can be foot-related repetitive strain and chronic pain. With diminished strength, the foot arch can drop or collapse, potentially leading to strain of the plantar ­fascia — the thick, supportive band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects to your heel. That can trigger pronation of the ankle and ­unusual forces being placed on the knee joint. Over time, a weak foot core can be implicated in ­reduced walking efficiency and range of movement, or worse. It can lead to problematic things like chronic plantar fasciitis, tendon dysfunction and even osteoarthritis.

Despite their strong connection with performance enhancement, injury and falls prevention, our feet remain the last body part we think of working at the gym. There are no classes to strengthen the foot core muscles, no foot equivalent of the pilates reformer and they are rarely included in conventional rehab programs. So what should we do? A daily regimen of ‘exercises’ is key.

The researchers suggest, perhaps the simplest thing we should all do is barefoot walking. Simply, walking around the house and the yard (or perhaps the beach) can be used as a tool to strengthen the foot core in those who are not suffering existing pain. Also try to pick something up with your toes, socks or a towel, then try something like marbles. You could also try simple moves such as writing the alphabet with your toes.

In Nature’s Scientific Reports journal in February, it was suggested that the shoes we wear often do nothing to help foot strength. Wearing supportive or restrictive footwear ­reduces the role of the foot muscles. That includes not only high heels, which force the feet into an unstable position and put pressure on the plantar fascia tissue, but overconstructed trainers and insoles that give so much support for the foot arch that the muscles have little work to do to keep it raised.

However, if you already have flat foot or overpronation or other afflictions that cause foot pain, stick to your shoes or insoles or whatever helps you minimise that pain. But if you don’t have any of those problems, you should try easing your way into using less structured shoes. Based on data from a few different studies, there is now a cautious suggestion that minimalist shoes those with no in-built arch support and sandals are ideal in helping to maintain a strong, healthy foot.

As for a as your brain is concerned your feet are an enormously rich source of movement information (proprioception)  which ensures our body and spine remain stable whilst we are conducting all the tasks of daily living. Your brain and neural networks like variety, the more you can stimulate the nerves in your feet and ankles, the better. Strengthening specific small muscles of the foot and ankle can play a huge role in performance enhancement and injury prevention.  Because the toe and arch muscles provide stability during the pushoff phase while walking, jumping, and running, weakness in these muscles may lead to a variety of injuries including plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bunions, and Achilles tendinitis. Remember maintaining strong toes is especially important as we age, because older adults have toe strength declines of more than 35%, and the resultant toe weakness correlates strongly with an increased risk of fall.

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