Walking is one of the easiest, most accessible forms of exercise to improve your health. Whether it’s 10 minutes of walking or longer sessions leading to tackling an event like a half-marathon, increasing your step count can help you improve your mood, boost creativity, reduce the risk for heart disease, and help you lose weight.
Still, if you go from not walking much to regularly hitting 10,000 steps a day, the health benefits could come with some setbacks. If your feet aren’t accustomed to so much activity, you might experience some soreness and stiffness.
Here, walking and foot experts explain why it’s important to prep your feet for taking up a walking habit, and exactly how to do it.
“Each foot and ankle has a total of 33 joints,” says Katy Bowman, a biomechanist who created Walking Well along with her colleague, Jill Miller. If you’re sedentary, these joints become stiff, which can change your gait pattern and negatively impact how you move and what you feel with each step, she explains.
With this in mind, “Sudden and significant increases in physical activity are one of the most common causes of injury,” says Andrew Wojciechowski, ND, a specialist at Northwestern Foot & Ankle. Even athletes can have “out of shape feet,” says Wojciechowski, if proper attention isn’t paid to stretching and mobility.
It’s important to start your walking routine gradually, rather than diving in all at once. “Limit long-for-you walks to 3–4 times a week when you’re just beginning,” recommends Donna Robertson, a teaching consultant for Foot Solutions and a board-certified pedorthist. It’s also a good idea to incorporate stretching and mobility exercises to help you remain injury-free and get the most out of your walks.
“Gather some small items like a few small rocks, marbles or bouncy balls and a
coffee cup or bowl,” says Bowman. Sit or stand with the items and the cup at your feet. Pick up the items with one foot and drop them into your cup, one at a time. Repeat on the other side, noticing if it’s harder or easier with your other foot.
“The muscles, bones, ligaments, nerves and fascia in your feet all need to be able to adjust their position in an integrated fashion as you walk across terrain,” says Miller. “Massaging and stimulating your feet nourishes these tissues and prepares them to move. When you improve your feet’s ability to sense through rolling, the muscles contract better.”
The stretch: Use two physical therapy balls in the pouch they come in. Miller recommends Yoga Tune Up balls or two tennis balls in a knotted sock (so the tennis balls don’t roll out.) Stand next to a wall or a chair and then let your foot slide on top of both balls at once going from toes to heel and back again. Lean your body weight in, attempting to create a little bit of smush into the balls. Repeat on each foot.
Next, go back to the first foot, and place one of the balls in the center of the arch. Go slowly from side to side trying to map the foot and introduce movement, especially where movement seems to not be happening. Then, do the same thing on the ball of the foot. Let the toes hang over the ball and then slowly roll from side to side crossing over every part of the foot. This helps your toes and midfoot bones become more mobile. Change sides and repeat.
“You might feel that the foot itself is broadening,” Miller notes. “It might feel like it has more surface area, and that’s a good thing.”
Calf tightness can affect how your foot moves, your balance and your foot position while you walk, says Robertson. Here’s a stretch Bowman recommends:
The stretch: With a wall or chair close by for balance, place a thick-rolled towel (or a rolled yoga mat) on the floor in front of you. Step onto the towel with a bare foot, placing the ball of the foot on the top of the towel and keeping your heel on the floor. Adjust the foot so it points forward, and slowly straighten your stretching leg. Keeping your body upright (try not to lean forward with your torso), step forward with the opposite foot. The tighter your lower leg, the harder it is to step in front of your stretching leg.
“It’s common to keep the non-stretching leg behind the towel at first,” Bowman notes. “If you’re leaning forward, finding you need to bend your knees, or losing your balance, shorten your stepping distance.” If you want to make the stretch more advanced, sub the towel for a foam roller.
DRAW THE ALPHABET WITH YOUR TOE
Wojciechowski recommends this drill to help with mobility and gentle stretching. This exercise also moves the ankle joint in all directions.
The stretch: Sit on the floor. Optionally, you can support your foot with a foam roller or towel, placing it under your Achilles tendon. (You can also do this exercise while sitting in a chair). Trace the entire alphabet with your big toe, then repeat on the other side.
EXTRA CREDIT: SOAK YOUR FEET WITH EPSOM SALT
“For recovery, I’ve found Epsom salt foot soaks are the best all-around treatment for sore feet in need of healing,” says Wojciechowski. “The magnesium salts combined with the warm water encourage muscle relaxation, blood vessel dilation and increased circulation. Blood is where all our healing cells, factors, and nutrients come from and how all waste gets carried away; it is how we do our healing.” If you’re wondering whether ice would be better, Wojciechowski says ice can help with pain, but warmth is better for encouraging blood flow, which leads to faster recovery.
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.