Flat feet, also called fallen arches or pes planus, have little to no arch. “The arch of the foot collapses, and the sole of the foot comes into full or almost-full contact with the ground [when standing],” says Suzanne Fuchs, DPM, a podiatric foot and ankle surgeon.
Nelya Lobkova, DPM, a board-certified podiatrist based in New York City, says some of the main causes of flat feet include genetics (the alignment of the foot’s bone structure from birth), injuries, obesity, aging, and pregnancy, which increases laxity (or looseness) in the foot's ligaments.
And while the majority of flat feet cases are no sweat, the condition can become problematic if you experience pain, weakness, or numbness. Below, learn some of the symptoms caused by flat feet, plus five flat feet exercises to practice when you want to keep your tootsies in tip-top shape.
Symptoms of flat feet
According to Dr. Lobkova and Dr. Fuchs, flat feet symptoms can include:
- Pain in the arch or mid-foot
- Protruding bump on the inside of the foot
- Tight calf muscles
- Problems standing, walking, or balancing
- Frequent foot or ankle injuries
Over time, flat feet can also develop into posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (PTTD), a condition caused by a tear of the tendon that connects the calf muscle to the bones on the inside of the foot. “The tendons and ligaments located on the inside of the foot begin to weaken and stretch out, causing deformity of the joints that the tendons and ligaments normally stabilize,” says Dr. Lobkova. “The foot arch appears collapsed, and the foot becomes unstable, which leads to the foot turning out and knee and back pain. It is important to identify this condition and control and stabilize the integrity of the foot and ankle tendons and ligaments before chronic pain and deformity results.”
5 podiatrist-approved flat feet exercises for strong ankles and arches
Dr. Fuchs recommends doing these moves at least three to four times per week to prevent issues associated with flat feet.
1. Short foot exercise
“The goal of the short foot exercise is to ‘shorten’ the foot by contracting the foot muscles to raise the arch by pulling the big toe joint toward the heel,” Dr. Fuchs says.
To do it, “sit barefoot in a chair with your feet on the ground. Without crunching your toes, try to shorten your foot by bringing the ball of your foot toward your heel, doming the arches in your feet.” Do one foot at a time and keep your toes on the floor without curling or extending them. Hold the position for eight seconds and relax. Repeat eight to 12 times. Once you’ve nailed the exercise while sitting down, you can take it up a notch by doing it while standing.
2. Posterior tibial tendon strengthening
Dr. Fuchs says this exercise helps support the foot’s arch and all you need is a tennis ball. You can do it sitting or standing. Place the ball between your ankles and squeeze. Then slowly raise both of your heels off the ground at the same time until you are on your tiptoes.
The challenge is keeping your toes on the ground and the ball in place by lightly squeezing. Hold the position for a couple of seconds, then slowly (take about four seconds for this) lower your heels to the floor. Do three sets of 10 raises, resting in between each set.
3. Calf wall stretch
Flat feet exercises are not just about exercising your feet but also the surrounding areas. Enter the calf wall stretch. “The goal of the calf stretch is to improve ankle range of motion or, specifically, ankle dorsiflexion,” Dr. Fuchs says. “Dorsiflexion brings the top of the foot closer to the shin. This motion is limited by tight and shortened calf muscles.”
To perform the stretch, stand a little less than arm’s distance from a wall. Keep your feet parallel as you step your left leg forward and your right leg back, bending your left knee and pressing through your right heel. Ensure your right heel is touching the ground and hold the position for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other leg. Perform the stretch a total of three times on each side.
4. Plantar fascia stretch
“Flat feet can put a lot of strain on the ligament at the bottom of the foot called the plantar fascia,” Dr. Fuchs says. “The plantar fascia runs along the bottom of the foot and attaches from the heel bone to behind the toes. This can lead to pain and inflammation of the area, aka plantar fasciitis.”
To give the area a good stretch, sit in a chair, and cross your right foot over your left knee. Pull your toes back, stretching the bottom of your foot. Hold it there for 30 seconds as you massage the bottom of your foot. Repeat on the other foot. Do it three times on each side to complete the stretch.
5. Toe lifts
Your toes deserve some attention, too. The toe lift exercise, Dr. Fuchs says, helps strengthen the intrinsic (or interior) muscles in your feet and helps with foot stability and balance.
“Keep your feet planted and slowly lift your big toes up while keeping the rest of your toes against the ground,” she says. “Hold your toes up for five seconds, then slowly put them back down. Then slowly lift the rest of your toes while keeping your big toes planted, hold for five seconds, then slowly bring them down. Repeat six to eight times on each side.”
Tips for dealing with flat feet
One of the biggest challenges of having flat feet is finding comfortable shoes that are supportive and stable. “A flat foot requires the shoe to be wide enough at the ball of the foot and supportive in the midsole or arch of the foot to limit the collapse of the arch,” Dr. Lobkova says.
The solution: orthotics, which place the foot in a neutral position by providing arch support and the correct heel tilt. Buying over-the-counter orthotics at your local drugstore can help. However, Dr. Lobkova says, they are often bought incorrectly and are made of flexible material that provides limited support. Getting custom orthotics from a podiatrist is your best bet for getting the support you need to do all the activities your heart (er, feet) desires without any issues.
However, if the problem is severe and no other treatment options have helped, your podiatrist may recommend surgical intervention. “This can consist of reconstruction of the bones, joints, and/or tendons to help permanently create an arch,” Dr. Fuchs says. “One option is an implant that is placed through a small incision into the subtalar joint. This is the joint under the ankle joint that provides the motion in the foot and helps create an arch when standing.”
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