Exercises to Improve, Strengthen, and Lengthen Your Arches

Fallen or collapsed arches are commonly called flat feet, a condition where your feet press flat on the ground. Thirty percent of the population may be affected by this condition. When people with flatfeet stand, the feet point outward, and the soles of the feet fall and touch the floor. Many people with flat feet don’t have any symptoms except getting fatigued more quickly from standing or walking. Yet, others suffer with daily pain and discomfort, not only in their feet, but in their legs and sometimes hips due to the interconnected nature of our legs and feet. 

Being flatfooted is common in infants and toddlers because the foot's arch hasn't developed yet. Arches develop throughout the childhood years, but some people never develop arches. When arches don't develop during childhood, flat feet are the result.

Or, flat feet can develop later in life from an injury or from the simple wear-and-tear on the feet that occurs over years due to the aging process. Most cases of flat feet are genetic; some people are born with low or nonexistent arches.

mans flat foot on wood floor

There are, however, factors that can increase the risk of developing flat feet such as obesity, severe trauma to the feet or ankles from a sports injury or accident, Rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes or certain nerve-related diseases. 

The Role of Arches for Weight Distribution

Our bodies distribute our weight efficiently in the arches of our feet. When those arches are low or nonexistent, it changes the way our legs carry the weight, putting extra stress on bones, ligaments, and muscles. Exercises to alleviate the pain or discomfort from flat feet will improve, strengthen, and lengthen your arches.

Certain techniques can fix flat feet naturally by raising your arches. The focus of these exercises is on raising, strengthening, and lengthening your arches. “Fixing” flat feet involves lifting them off the ground with a combination of exercises designed to strengthen the muscles and connective tissues in your feet.

Exercises to Relieve Foot Pain and Correct or Improve Arches 

Stretching the plantar fascia, the thick, fibrous tissue (band of ligaments) that runs along the bottom of your feet, connecting the heel bone to the toes

  • Place your ankle on your thigh and hold your toes in one hand.
  • With the other hand, gently fold the foot in on itself by pushing down and in on the heel.
  • Gently push the toes toward the heel and hold for 3–5 minutes.
  • Do this daily or whenever you experience pain.

Duck stand

A duck stand may also help you by activating your glutes (buttocks). These muscles play a role in how much you pronate (turn or hold your foot toward the inside edge of your feet).

  • Stand with your heels together and your feet turned out like a duck.
  • Try your best to move your legs outward using your glute muscles and tilting your pelvis under your body. As your legs rotate, the arches of your feet come up and out of pronation.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.

Roll out the tension 

Man rolling out the arch of his foot over a tennis ball

A common method to treat foot pain is to press your foot into a lacrosse or tennis ball to relax tension in your plantar fascia. Many people have seen good results from this technique.

  • Sit on a chair with a tennis or lacrosse ball under your foot.
  • Maintain a straight spine as you roll the ball under your foot, focusing on the arch.
  • Do this for 2–3 minutes before switching feet.

Open chain calf stretch (a seated stretch)

  • Sit on the ground with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  • Keep your feet in as neutral a position as possible.
  • Lean forward slightly and grab your toes to stretch them back, which will stretch your calves.
  • Hold this position for 10-20 seconds and release. Repeat this stretch a few times.

Heel Stretches a/k/a Closed Chain Calf Stretch

  • Stand with your hands resting on a wall, chair, or railing at shoulder or eye level.
  • Keep one leg forward and the other leg extended behind you.
  • Press both heels firmly into the floor.
  • Keeping your spine straight, bend your front leg and push yourself into the wall until you feel a stretch in your back leg and Achilles tendon.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching legs
  • Repeat on each side 4 times.

Arch Lifts (aka Short Foot Posture)

  • Stand with your bare feet directly underneath your hips.
  • Be sure to keep your toes in contact with the floor during this exercise. Roll your weight to the outer edges of your feet as you lift your arches up as far as you can.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds. This works the muscles that help to lift and supinate your arches.
  • Do 10–15 repetitions
  • As often as possible, try holding this posture during your daily activities.

Calf raises

  • While standing, lift your heels as high as you can.
  • You can use a chair or wall to help balance.
  • Hold the position for 5 seconds.
  • Do 15–20 repetitions.
  • Then hold the upper position and pulse up and down for 30 seconds.

Stair arch raises

  • Stand on steps with your left foot one step higher than your right foot.
  • Use your left foot for balance as you lower your right foot down so your heel hangs over the step, lower than the step.
  • Slowly lift your right heel as high as you can, focusing on strengthening your arch.
  • Rotate your arch inward as your knee and calf rotate slightly to the side, causing your arch to become higher.
  • Slowly lower back down before switching feet.
  • Do 10–15 repetitions on both sides.

Toe Raises

  • While standing, press your right big toe into the floor and lift up your other four toes.
  • Then press your four toes into the floor and lift up your big toe.
  • Do exercise 5–10 times, holding each lift for 5 seconds before switching feet.

Towel Curls or Toe Curls

The towel curl exercise stretches and flexes the foot to improve balance, support the arches, and increase overall foot strength. The curl can also help improve toe strength, which is beneficial for good balance. 

Towel Curls Exercise

You will need a small towel and a chair on which to sit if you wish. You can do this exercise anywhere that you can sit or stand with your feet flat on the floor. It's easier to do on a hard surface, such as wood or tile. Whether you sit or stand, it's important to have good posture. Keep your shoulders back and arms relaxed by your sides. If sitting, make sure your legs are at a 90-degree angle with your toes still visible. If you are standing, bend your knees slightly.

  • Smooth the towel out and place one foot on it, flat. Keep extra fabric in front of your foot because you are going to be moving the towel toward yourself.
  • Sit on a chair (or stand) with your heels under your knees. Make sure your legs and feet are parallel to each other with the toes pointing forward. Keep your heel down and lift your toes. Then flex your foot back to ‘grab’ the towel with your toes, scooping it in with your arch and toes.
  • Use both sides of your foot (all five toes) and try to create a deep dome under the arch area. You will only get a little bit of the towel to move each time you extend and pull back. 
  • Repeat the move at least five times, and then do it with the other foot. You can do this exercise daily or even several times a day.

Stretching out the hamstrings, calves and hip flexor muscles also helps improve and correct flat feet. Some exercises and stretches may help relieve pain or discomfort; others serve to retrain your gait by raising and strengthening your arches to correct the alignment of the ankles and the knees.

When stretching and foam rolling out your calves, hamstrings, and hip flexor muscles, make sure that you stretch slowly, pacing your movements, gently pulling the muscle until you feel tightness, holding it for a few seconds, and then slowly releasing it back to its original position. Otherwise, you can actually make your muscles tighter. Foam rolling is a method that uses your own bodyweight to perform a self-massage. 

Some hip flexor exercises can include Straight Leg Raises, Floor Sliding Mountain Climbers exercise, and the Jump Lunge. For calf and hamstring exercises, running, walking, cycling, and hiking are a few activities that engage the calf muscles and the hamstring muscles located on the back of the thigh. 

Straight Leg Raises

  • Lie on the floor with your legs straight and arms by your sides. 
  • Bend your right knee at a 90-degree angle with your right foot on the floor.
  • Lift the left leg to about a 45-degree angle, keeping the leg straight. 
  • Hold for three to five seconds. 
  • Repeat 10 times before switching legs. 

Floor Sliding Mountain Climbers

  • Put a pair of furniture sliders on the floor.
  • Get in a push-up position and put your feet on the discs. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, arms straight and beneath your shoulders, with your back flat and body in a straight line from shoulders to ankles. 
  • Slide your right knee towards your chest. Go as close to your chest as you can while keeping the rest of your body in a straight line. 
  • Switch legs and alternate right and left legs for 30 seconds. 

Jump Lunge

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with your arms at your sides.
  • To get into a lunge position, take a big step forward with your right leg then shift your weight forward, so your heel touches the floor first and the forward leg is parallel to the floor.
  • Jump up with both feet, legs extended and then land back in the lunge position. You can lift your arms while you jump.
  • Repeat the lunge jump movement for 30 seconds or 10 jumps on each side.

Steps to avoid the pain caused by flat feet

Certain steps can be taken to avoid some of the problems associated with flat feet. For instance, avoid totally flat shoes such as thongs. Make sure the shoes you wear have an arch, one that supports the natural shape of your arch, not too flat, not too high. Arch inserts can be purchased over-the-counter, such as those offered by Dr. Scholl’s or PowerStep; or you can have them custom-made for your feet with a prescription from your doctor. 

Orthotic devices can reduce stress and absorb impact on your flat feet and may help to improve function and alignment of your feet while providing support. Stability shoes, such as motion control shoes, can also help to support your arches and provide extra cushioning. Orthotics and stability shoes can help correct overpronation, which is the way your foot moves when you walk, causing the outer edge of the heel to hit the ground first with the foot then rolling inward onto the arch, overly flattening the foot.

Always wear shoes designed for the activity in which you plan to participate, such as “running shoes”, or “tennis shoes”. Cross-trainer shoes support your feet for both sports with lateral movement and normal running and walking. A night here and there in unsupportive shoes won’t cause permanent harm; but try to limit the time you spend in them. 

If any of the following conditions apply to you, medical advice should be sought:

  • The fallen arches, or flat feet, have developed suddenly or recently
  • You have unexplained pain in the feet, ankles and lower limbs
  • Symptoms have not improved with supportive, well-fitted shoes
  • One or both feet are becoming worse
  • The feet feel rigid or stiff, or heavy and unwieldy
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