Foot health can help you pratice longer. Here, toes grasps a rubber ball.

Some people claim that of all our body parts, our feet tend to suffer the most.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know there is nothing worse than sore feet—and sore feet are guaranteed if neglected.

Just ask the thousands of Americans that annually report chronic foot pain. (A 2014 survey showed 77 percent of Americans experienced foot pain; this figure goes up to 81 percent of obese Americans.)

Our feet are our trusty servants, providing a foundation upon which we take a stand and with which we are able to move forward in life. The truth is, most of us take them for granted until they begin to scream, “Stop!”

As a credentialed reflexologist since 1983, I often hear the statement, “My feet are killing me!” Perhaps that comment would be more accurately stated as, “I’m killing my feet.”

We stuff our feet into poorly designed, ill-fitted shoes and then proceed to stand on them hour after hour without rest. We pay little attention to the fact that the feet carry our entire body weight every day of our lengthy existence here on earth.

Feet and Legs’ Special Role in Health

Countries all over the world have developed unique ways to take care of the feet. Foot massages, various styles of reflexology, specific exercises and hydrotherapy treatments speak to the importance cultures place on the feet, and the recognition of the need to take care of them.

In addition, whether we are talking about the sen lines in Thai medicine, meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine or the nadis in the Indian Ayurvedic model of medicine, there are key points on the feet that are believed to be closely associated with the wellbeing of the rest of the body.

I have heard it said that aging starts from the feet and legs. As this statement indicates, the legs and feet are often considered a barometer of health, especially in Eastern cultures. People in Eastern countries speak of the legs and feet as the second heart, because it is muscle contraction and movement of the lower extremities that returns deoxygenated blood back to the heart.

When the soles of the feet lack stimulation, circulation of the blood in the feet and the legs tends to lessen.

Since the feet mirror our general health, these ancient and tried models of medicine recognize that foot ailments could be the first sign of more serious medical problems. Conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, nerve and circulatory disorders can show their initial symptoms in the feet, so it is prudent to pay attention.

Who knows, you may be walking on the solution to many of your problems!

Foot Health

Some interesting facts that may convince you to offer your feet some love and attention:

• The human foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles.

• One quarter of the human body’s bones are in the feet. When these bones are out of alignment, so is the rest of the body.

• Typically in a person’s 30s or 40s, the natural fat pads on the plantar surface of the feet gradually begin to thin out, resulting in less cushioning and often leading to foot pain.

• During an average day of walking, the forces on your feet can total hundreds of tons. That is equivalent to a fully loaded cement truck.

• Each time the heel lifts off the ground when walking, the toes are forced to carry one half of your body weight.

Self-care

I believe that self-care is health care, so I want to share some additional actions that you can easily integrate into your life that will result in happier, healthier feet. These practices will go far toward foot health, and in helping you to maintain relaxation, strength, flexibility and alignment in your feet.

Foot soak. In ancient Chinese cultures it was the habit to sit in the evening and soak the feet. This activity not only cleansed the feet, but also served as a bridge between the day’s busy activities and an evening of relaxation.

Soaking the feet in warm water with Epsom salts will draw out excess lymphatic fluid, soften and relax the tissue and draw your attention to the feet and body, away from your busy, monkey-mind.

Or, perform an exfoliating scrub made with a handful of rice ground into coarse flour, combined with one teaspoon of olive oil and enough raw honey and apple cider vinegar to make a thick paste.

After drying off your feet, lay back and rest your legs up against the wall for a few minutes, so as to raise them above your head and reverse blood flow. This is a great way to wind down in the evening.

Stretch and strengthen. After the ankle joints, the joints of the toes are the most important in the foot because they propel us forward as we toe off while walking. Without strength and mobility in the toes, walking comfortably and efficiently is difficult and often painful.

The beauty of this exercise is that it manages to strengthen and stretch pretty well every muscle in the foot, as well as the toes. Not only will you be doing your toes a favor, you will be assisting your foot to maintain a strong arch and prevent painful conditions like plantar fasciosis and metatarsalgia from developing.

All you do is place some small rubber or silicone balls (about 2.5 cm) on the floor in front of you while you are seated.

With bare feet, pick up each of the balls with your toes and move each ball to the side—or bring the foot holding the ball into a tailor position across your other leg and remove the ball from your toes with your hand. Aim to pick up at least a dozen balls. Repeat with the other foot.

You will see your toes scrunch up as you perform this exercise. Work to engage all of the toes. The action of picking up the balls is stretching the dorsal tissue and strengthening the plantar, and increasing the mobility, strength and flexibility of the joints in the toes and the metatarsals. This is a win-win for the entire foot.

Play ball. Use a ball—tennis, golf or silicone—or a foot roller to stretch and massage the plantar surface of your feet. While seated, move your foot back and forth over your chosen tool, using as much pressure as is comfortable for you.

With time, you will be able to put more weight into the roller and relax the deeper layers of muscle and fascia along the entire plantar surface of your feet.

Separate your toes. This one is even easier.When sitting around in the evening, place separators between your toes. That’s it.

By doing this every evening, you are encouraging the muscles and tendons of your toes to lengthen. The goal is to straighten and flatten the toes, and widen the forefoot. An ideal foot will present with the sides of the foot angling out from the calcaneus to a wider base at the toes and forefoot.

A solid base like this gives you more stability; lengthening and straightening the toes will help prevent the development of problematic bunions, hammertoes, mallet or claw toes.

Start with very soft sponge separators if your toes are tight, and gradually work up to silicone ones that will spread your toes apart further.

None of the above activities is difficult, time-consuming, requires expensive equipment or that you leave the comfort of your home.

I have both balls and separators sitting by my TV remote. It’s a nightly ritual to pick up small balls with my toes, massage the bottoms of my feet with a large ball and separate toes while reading a novel or watching a favorite program. Easy and simple, and habits I guarantee you will never regret having formed.

Be Proactive

Finish your nightly love-fest with your feet by massaging in rich foot butter infused with a favorite essential oil intended to relax the feet and body. Better yet, if you are trained in reflexology, perform a few of your favorite techniques. Just a few minutes on each foot and you will likely notice your body and mind pointing you toward bed and a sound, relaxing sleep.

Even if you don’t currently have any issues with your feet, I highly encourage you to be proactive. In my reflexology practice, I see a high proportion of clients who have chronic foot pain that is mostly due to neglect and a lack of awareness.

Do something now so you don’t find yourself later not being able to work comfortably or participate in other activities you currently enjoy in your life.

Treat your feet well. Practice foot health, and your feet will tend to return the favor.

Karen Ball, NBCR, LMT, is a board-certified reflexologist in practice since 1983. In addition to maintaining a clinical practice, she offers, through the Academy of Ancient Reflexology, trainings in conventional and Thai reflexology and related subjects throughout the U.S. and Canada. She is the immediate past president of the Reflexology Association of America and the current president and founder of the Florida Association of Reflexologists.