Active people often think to strengthen their abdominal, leg, and arm muscles during a workout, while the muscles of the feet tend to be neglected. For people with flat feet, this can be especially problematic as it can lead to foot, leg, and back pain due to the lack of support for the arch of the foot. This arch is called the medial longitudinal arch (MLA), and when it is flattened can be referred to as 'fallen arches'. The bones and ligaments that run across this arch can have excess and imbalanced force put through them leading to pain. Additionally, the foot can start to roll in or 'pronate', leading to biomechanical dysfunction in the knee, hip, and pelvic girdle. Although the problem can often originate in one of these other areas, the body works as a connected unit, so each joint will have an ongoing effect on the others.
While it is unlikely that someone with flat feet will ever have high arches, and that the outer physical appearance of a flat foot may change only slightly or not at all, the small muscles that support the arch of the foot can be strengthened. This can alleviate and prevent problems associated with biomechanical dysfunction of the foot. Following are some suggestions for exercises that will strengthen these muscles:
Walking barefoot - Allowing the foot to roll through the arch with a heel- toe gait pattern, instead of being restricted by footwear, will activate some of the muscles that are difficult to access while walking in shoes.
Toe curls - Put a towel under your foot, and gather it by curling your toes OR dome your foot, and try to see all 5 bones at the base of each toe (the metatarsal heads) raise equally on the top of the foot, so you know the whole muscle is working to increase the arch.
Yoga flow - If you have some experience with yoga, you can try this yoga flow. The sequence is cobra->downward dog->child's pose. Moving from cobra to downward dog is a great way to access the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the foot. As with any exercise, use caution, and seek guidance from a qualified teacher when needed.
Joanna Miller, Physiotherapist and Certified Yoga Teacher