Here in Canada (and throughout the western world) we're facing an epidemic of weak feet and fallen arches. While that bodes well for the orthotic industry, we're ending our days with sore feet, knees, hips, lower backs, shoulders. It's unclear whether it has something to do with harder walking surfaces, our extravagant footwear or whether its something we learn from others. The rates of fallen arches are rare in less developed countries, clearly our western lifestyles have something to do with it. I'm not knocking your orthotics, they probably provide you with much needed support and relief for your feet, especially if your one of the many who stand all day for work. But what if you could incorporate a few simple actions that will strengthen your arch, improve your balance and reduce your discomfort? This will be a short exploration into your arch and how you can improve it. Have questions, comments, grievances? Leave them below in the comments section!
What Determines the Shape of Your Arch?
Your arch is determined by the shapes of the bones in your feet, the tone and tightness of your ligaments that hold those bones together and the strength of the muscles that support the ligaments. For example, if ligaments are lose or loosen over time, the foot muscles have to work harder to support them, ultimately leading to a high or fallen arch. While ligament and bone structures are mostly hereditary, the shape of your arch can be improved by changing the strength, flexibility and coordination of your foot muscles.
Understanding your Foot Muscles
The two main muscles that lift the arch (supination) are the tibialis anterior, originating from the front of the shin bone, and the tibialis posterior, coming from deep in the outer calf. Both of these muscles are attached to the small bones that form the arch of your foot. Because these long tendons run past the inner ankle on their way to the arch, they have amazing leverage to lift the arch of the foot. The opposing muscles to these lifting muscles are the peroneals. The peroneus longus starts from your outer calf, it's tendon runs along the outer ankle and under the sole of the foot and inserts on the arch. This muscle helps you press down through the base of the big toe (i.e. Pronation). When this muscle is engaged, you should also feel firmness in the outer calf as well as the big toe mound pressing down. Consciously applying the action of these muscles can improve the shape of your arch over time.
What Does a Healthy Arch Look Like?
In a healthy arch, your weight should be evenly distributed between the outer and inner foot and between the heel and ball of your foot. You should feel a balance between the tibialis anterior's lifting action and the peroneus longus' grounding of the big toe. Your arch should feel lifted and light while the inner heel and base of your big toe are grounded.
Test Your Arch!
When you stand, do the inner points of your foot feel heavy? Your foot is probably collapsing (pronation). In a collapsed arch, the tibialis posterior is forced to work harder resulting in strain at the inner edges of your heels, back of your heels or soles of your feet at the inner arch. You may also feel calf tightness or soreness. Does your outer foot feel heavy? While your arch may be nice and high, the big toe is probably lifting and the outer ankle may feel strain.
The Next Steps
Now that you've examined your feet to determine whether your arches are fallen or too high, the following will be a brief guide on how to start correcting these imbalances. A program aimed at just strengthening the muscles of the arch will probably not fix a fallen arch. O`ne aimed at maintaining foot balance while practicing exercises that strengthen and lengthen these muscles are your best bet. Yoga is great for this but you can apply these actions to any exercise to feel the benefits. By keeping awareness to your arches throughout your yoga practice and day to day activities, you can actually improve your arches over time.
Correcting a Fallen Arch (over-pronation)
- Press the outer edge of the foot down to lift the arch.
- Make sure that the center of your kneecap is aligned over the center of your foot.
- If your knee points toward or even to the inside of the big toe, it causes pronation.
- Try to lift your middle 3 toes while pressing your pinky and big toe down. This is a great exercise to activate and build your arch while working on the inner and outer edges of the foot. See if you can lift and lower these toes 5 times. This action can be incorporated in a variety of poses throughout your yoga practice and day to day activities to strengthen your arch.
Correcting a High Arch (Over-supination)
- Press down through the base of the big toe
- The toe exercises described above for correcting over-pronation are also great for high arches (i.e. Grounding the big toe).
- Try toe rolls! With your feet flat on the ground, lift all of your toes up and then slowly lower your toes one at a time, “rolling” them back onto the ground.
- Try picking up a small ball with just your toes (e.g. Golf ball)
Maintaining a Healthy Arch Throughout Your Yoga Practice
- The back foot poses like trikonasana/triangle or warrior two tends to overpronate, leaving the inner arch collapsed while the outer edge of the foot lifts. Pay attention to grounding the outer edge of your back foot in these poses, this will lift your arch and bring your foot into balance
- Once you've figured out how to keep the outer edge of your foot down and arch lifted, make sure you don't over do it and oversupinate!
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- Imhauser CW, Abidi NA, Frankel DZ, Gavin K, Siegler S. (2002) Biomechanical evaluation of the efficacy of external stabilizers in the conservative treatment of acquired flatfoot deformity.Foot Ankle Int. 23(8):727-37.
- Stolwijk NM, Duysens J, Louwerens JW, Van De Ven YH, Keijsers NL. (2013) Flat feet, happy feet? Comparison of the dynamic plantar pressure distribution and static medial foot geometry between Malawian and Dutch adults. PloS One. 8(2):e56209.