Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Oct

How to Strengthen Your (Bare, Flat) Feet

About 20% of adults have flat feet. A small subset of the population suffers from hereditary flat foot, but most of it is developed. Very few of us are actually born with flat foot. In this post I’ll explore what you can do to avoid flat feet in the first place, and if you already have them whether it is possible to reverse the damage.

Since publishing blog posts on ditching shoes, alternatives to going barefoot, and others I now receive regular reader emails like this one:

Dear Mark,

I’ve had flat foot all my life (18 years so far) and always wondered about the cause from an evolutionary stand point, and any negatives that might come from it. I vaguely remember the doctors subscribing foot supports and a lot of unnecessary products which I haven’t used in a decade. I don’t have any problems that I know of, but just wondering if there’s any alterations I should make to my workout routine to benefit me more? Thanks in advanced.


Great question, Ahmed.

First, how do we develop flat feet? Almost every online resource gives a few stock answers for the cause of flat foot. Most places say something like this:

Causes of Weak Arches:

Flat feet can be hereditary and present themselves at birth. For others the condition can occur as a result of mis-treating the feet – for example wearing high heels for prolonged periods of time, or wearing shoes with no support.

Flat feet or fallen arches can also result from:

  • Weakened muscles in the foot due to aging
  • Weakened muscles in the foot due to injury

Or this:


  • Weakened muscles due to aging or heavy strain placed on the feet.
  • Standing or walking for long periods in high heels.
  • Wearing shoes that don’t provide proper arch support.

Okay, weakened muscles in the foot I can buy as a cause. In fact, it’s almost certainly one of the primary causes of flat foot. High heels aren’t doing us any favors, either, although I’d amend that one to include anything with even slightly-raised heels as a causative agent. I cannot, however, agree with the contention that lack of shoes without “proper arch support” is the problem; I’d even say that it’s the exact opposite. Try “Wearing shoes that do provide proper arch support” instead. Shoes do little else but provide an environment that our feet simply haven’t truly adapted to.

Our genes want us to be barefoot. In fact, it’s the only environment they know, having been born into a shoeless existence. On an individual scale, you could say we adapt to our shoes, but not on a genetic level. Evolutionarily, we’re still walking on the same bare feet Grok used to get around his environment. In fact, hominids have been obligate bipeds for over two million years. Our feet were arguably the first things to develop. Before the big brains, the complex tool making, and the language, our ancestors were walking upright on feet that looked remarkably similar to our own. But don’t tell that to the guys at Nike. They’re convinced those millions of years of natural selection still weren’t enough to produce a working, functional foot that doesn’t require manmade supportive footwear (unless, of course, you buy the Nike Free, in which case the lack of support is suddenly beneficial – awesome logic, huh?).

The Evidence

Before I get carried away on a tangential rant against athletic shoes, I’ll try to stick to the topic at hand. We know that shoes alter the structure and function of the foot. I mean, it sounds like plain common sense, but there’s also some concrete evidence. Back in 1905, an orthopedist named Dr. Philip Hoffman conducted a “Comparative Study of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing Peoples” (don’t you just love old research?) and published his results in the American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery. He also took a ton of photos.

Here’s one of a foot that rarely – if ever – saw the inside of a shoe.

Note the wide toes, and how a straight line can be drawn through the axis. Looks pretty healthy and stable, right?

Now look at this photo of a pair of feet and the shoes they’re shoved into.

Notice the narrow structure and the cramped toes, especially the angle of the big toe. It’s pointing inward!

Shoe wearing acts quickly, too. Here, Hoffman snapped photos of two sets of feet.

Foot A is that of a child who has worn shoes for a mere three months, while Foot B is that of an adult who’s gone barefoot his whole life. Three months was all it took to drastically shape the child’s feet. Already his big toe is turning inward.

In the end, Hoffman concluded that of the “one hundred and eighty-six pairs of primitive feet examined, [he] did not find a single foot associated with the symptoms of weakness so common in adult shoe-wearing feet, which are weakened by the restraint the shoe exerts over function.” He also noticed that foot development was remarkably similar, in all populations, up until the introduction of foot wear. Shoes, it seems, have an undeniable ability to alter one’s natural foot structure.

But wait: there’s even more. Researchers in India found (PDF) that flat foot was far more prevalent among people who wore footwear before the age of six. Kids who ran around barefoot for most of their first six years – the formative years, it turns out – had better developed longitudinal arches and less flat foot. Among children who wore footwear on a regular basis, 8.2% suffered from flat foot (compared to 2.8% of barefoot kids). No other factors had comparable impacts. Adults didn’t have higher rates of flat foot than the kids, unless they reported wearing shoes as children. Why do we wear these things, anyway?

If you’ve got kids or are planning on it, you may want to take a good long look at their shoes – or lack thereof.

What Can You Do About It?

Okay, that’s all very compelling, but what does a guy like Ahmed do about his condition? Whether it was inherited (not likely) or developed through footwear usage, he’s still got to deal with a pair of flat feet. He can’t go back in time to age four and throw out his baby sneakers. He can’t erase the years and years of shoe-wearing, years that may have exacerbated his problem (kudos for ditching the orthotics, though!). Is Ahmed beholden to his situation? Are his feet forever altered?

No! Assuming his flat foot was developed, he’s still got the genetic potential to improve his feet and – at least partially – restore some of his natural structure and strength. You’ll still technically be flat footed, but you should be able to restore total functionality to your feet.

The first, perhaps most important step is to stay away from orthotics and shoes with “plenty of arch support.” Rather than help you solve your problem, shoes with arch supports prop you up and lead to weak, atrophied foot musculature. Your feet aren’t grasping, pulling, pushing, and flexing inside a pair of athletic trainers; they’re growing soft and growing weak. Fixing, or at least mitigating, your flat feet is going to require some serious foot strength.

Next, spend as much time as humanly possible with your bare feet. If you’re at home, remove your shoes as soon as you enter. If you’re heading out to take the dog on a walk, try circling the block in your bare feet. Mail’s come? Shoeless. Early morning paper? Barefoot. Living room workout? Do it without shoes on. You’ve got to learn to use your feet again, and the best way to do so is to simply live, eat, breath, and sleep barefoot.

Try toe running. When I haven’t done any serious barefoot work (which is very rare, actually; I’m almost always barefoot or in minimalist footwear) in awhile, I’ll hop on the treadmill in my socks (to reduce slippage) and do five or six minutes of light jogging. The catch is that I make sure to stay on my toes the entire time. This strengthens the ligaments and muscles (there are over a hundred of ‘em in the human foot) and prepares them for future activity.

A Few Simple Exercises to Strengthen Your Feet

Do toe spreads. Sit, stand, or lie down and fan your toes out as widely as possible. Create space between each toe. Hold this position for ten seconds, and repeat the exercise ten times daily per foot.

Point at things with your toes. Pick something, anything, in the room and point your toes at it. Now flex your foot. Hold it for five seconds, then release. Again, do this ten times per foot each day. For extra work, try tracing the alphabet with your feet in midair each day.

Get on your toes. Stand on your tippy-toes and just walk around for five minutes each day. Never let your heels touch the ground for the duration. Barefoot toe treadmill work is a worthy alternative.

Try side walking. Stand up (barefoot, of course) and get in a shoulder wide stance. Bend your knees slightly and roll onto the outer edges of your feet. Keep the weight on your outer feet and slowly raise up on your toes. You should feel your longitudinal arch stretching; once you do, hold that position for five seconds. Repeat five times each day.

Walk in sand. Sand is never the same. If you kick off your shoes and hit the grains (yeah, I just coined that phrase: “hit the grains”), you will be catapulting your virgin bare feet into a chaotic, ever-changing environment that will force them to adapt. Hyperbole aside, walking barefoot in the sand is a highly effective way to strengthen your feet.

I can’t stress this enough: go slowly. From the previous pictures, it’s obvious how much of an impact shoes can have on our bodies. For many of us, a lifetime of shoe wearing means the risk of overtraining our bare feet is possible, or even likely, if we don’t exercise caution. You don’t want to leap blindly into barefoot sprints with severely flat feet and risk injuring yourself even further, do you? Do the strengthening exercises before anything else.

Again, the damage may be done, and the flat feet may be permanent. I’m obligated to say it. There is, however, a lot of anecdotal evidence, especially on some of the barefoot running sites, that suggests people with flat feet can prosper without shoes (and even cure their condition), but there’s little in the way of actual, concrete evidence. We do know that shoes affect the structure and function of our feet; what we don’t know is whether the damage can be reversed. You can certainly strengthen your feet simply by removing your shoes and going barefoot as often as possible – and I highly doubt we’re forever beholden to an artificial adaptation. We often hear about people adopting the Primal Blueprint and turning their lives around in a month after eating the Standard American Diet for years, because our genes are hardwired to prefer certain things and our bodies can recover from an awful lot of abuse. Maybe our feet are the same way. Maybe actual structural changes can’t be completely overcome, but I’d be willing to wager that through careful, targeted foot exercises and a focus on barefoot living, we can make them almost irrelevant.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on flat feet and a barefoot existence. Hit me up with a comment. Thanks for reading, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. What’s the best kind of footwear to wear (besides the minimalist – that wouldn’t fly in my office), especially in winter? I have arthritis in my big toe on my right foot and bone-one-bone arthritis in both knees. Ankles swell every day. I’m in barefeet at home. Thanks

    Tierney wrote on January 7th, 2015
  2. How do you know you have flat feet or not?

    Lynda wrote on January 20th, 2015
    • Basically if you have an arch under your foot, you so not have flat feet. If no arch under your feet is present then you have flat feet. The arch is supposed to be in the middle of both of your feet. Hope this helps!

      Eugene wrote on April 7th, 2015
  3. Neither of my parents have flat feet, but I have had flat feet my whole life. I’m very active but any athletic shoes I try always ending up hurting my feet and cause shin splints. What shoes would you suggest for running because you can’t go barefoot on a track..

    Macey wrote on March 17th, 2015
  4. Hello everyone, I also have flat feet and this has been the case since I was born; my left foot is normal but with pretty much no arch, unless I tense the “arch muscle” then I get a pretty normal arch; on my right foot it is the same case, but the metatarsal bones are connected with cuneiform bones, and with this foot even if I tense the “arch muscle” the arch caves in when stepping on the foot. I was wondering if running or jogging barefoot on dirt/mud would be beneficial, or could there be consequences from doing this in my current condition? Any tips or recommendations would be appreciated! Thank you.

    Eugene wrote on April 3rd, 2015
  5. I’ve had flat feet all of my life thanks to genetics. Both of my parents have it and so does my brother. For the first 10 years of my life, I had to wear orthotics because my feet were turned in so bad that my pinky toes were unable to touch the ground. Thanks to orthotics, both pinky toes can touch the ground (thankfully), and I can walk for miles without pain. Without surgery, my feet will always be flat.

    Now let me be clear about a few things, from the ages of 5-7 I was unable to walk two miles without having my ankles being in some degree of pain, eventually that moved up to my knees. I did the over the counter orthotics for a few months at a time, but when I went to go see an orthopedic about my feet, he was astounded by how flat and RIGID they were. Weight bearing or non-weight bearing, my feet are always going to be as flat as a cardboard box and that’ll never change unless I get reconstruction surgery.

    So this is just funny to me because… There’s different types of flat feet. You have rigid flat feet, flexible flat feet, and fallen arches. No matter how often someone goes barefoot with fallen arches or rigid flat feet, their foot will not change shape. It may strengthen the muscles, but it won’t strengthen the ligaments and tendons in your feet that have weaken. I’m the proud owner of rigid flat feet and trust me, I’ve walked around barefoot, ran barefoot, and have even gone through physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles in my feet. But they’re still flat. Thanks to orthotics, my foot alignment is a lot better than what was when I was 7.

    Demi wrote on May 5th, 2015
    • I am sorry to hear your pain. Are you able to create an arch when flexing the “arch” muscles?

      Eugene wrote on May 5th, 2015
  6. I have had flat feet since birth, my mother has flat feet also just not as flat as mine. I prefer to walk barefoot, have since I started walking, I am almost 31. I have never been told I have any weak muscles or anything of that nature, but have tried inserts off an on all my life. Nothing helps the pressure that flat feet feel. Not to mention how hard it is to find a nice pair of shoes, sports or dress, that have little to no arch.

    I guess I would be considered one of the few born with flat feet? I can trace it back to my great-great-grandparents at the very least.

    Ann wrote on May 6th, 2015
  7. OK, I would truly love to see all the research you’ve sited as I have proof within my husband’s family that high arches are hereditary & not effected by wearing shoes.
    Every single person in my husbands family has extremely high arches, from parents to his 5 bothers and all their children. My husband mother made them wear shoes ALL the time! Yet they all still have high arches.
    I on the other hand walked around barefoot as much as possible, (until there is several inches of snow in still barefoot). I have extremely flat feet, to the point that if I stand to long my heels & balls of my feet hurt!
    Therefore I’m finding it hard to believe this article.
    I came across it while googling for help for fatigued feet as I’m a hair dresser & my feet ache so badly some days I can barely walk on them if I don’t wear nursing type shoes with arch support.

    April wrote on June 17th, 2015
  8. This message is for Mark Burgan since you seem very knowledgeable and the owner of this page stopped responding a while ago. I have read every single post on this site all 11 pages. I will.start from the beginning. I never noticed I had flat feet in high school. I played multiple sports and always slipped my feet in cleats or the most supportive sneakers for basketball i could find. After graduating college I was a summer helper as an electrician in new york city in 2013. My father is also an electrician he had a pair of old red wing boots that were worn out and years old with his orthotics in them. Prior to this i had never ever had any foot problems in my life. His boots would make my left foot numb and i felt like my left heel was always higher than my right whenever i walked in them. I used them 5 days a week 11 hours a day to lift heavy equipment and work in them for 2 and a half months. After that i went back to a desk job and in about 3 weeks regained feeling in my foot, but developed pain and discomfort in my arch. I saw a dpm who gave me a cortisone shot and saw me in 3 weeks and fitted me for orthotics. I quickly ditched his orthotics to have another pair made by him a few weeks later. I stuck with those longer, but my ankle began to hurt and my foot was still in pain so I ditched those too. Fast forward to summer of 2014. I was just dealing with the pain of my foot which eventually turned into a burning and fatigue in my left calf as well. I was bench pressing in the gym and hurt my back. I went to a chiropractor to have it corrected who took X rays and gave me an mri. As my back showed no problems at all he prescribed me foot leveler orthotics. I have been wearing them since summer of 2014. My back pain is still here and has gotten worse whenever I stand or walk my knees now are starting to hurt on the inside where your meniscus is located and my hips are in pain as well. I have started seeing a physical therapist for my ailments. I have seen multiple chiropractors, 2 dpms and an orthopedic surgeon who took X rays of my foot and said it looked fine aside from my bunion and hammer toes. Mark i am o lyrics 24 years old and I have as about a year ago started a new job as an electrician i have to wear work boots. I have read other posts about people that have similar pains and aches to me that sound like they ate headed for a wheel chair. I am by no means ready to debilitate my life in a wheel chair or have hip or back surgeries at this age. I have my whole life ahead of me. Mark my question to you is do you think dorsiflexion and plantarflexion and strengthening exercises will help me at all? What do you think will help me. I’ve also had mri of my back and nothing not even a herniated or slipped disk has been found. I have relief from my pain when sitting or laying down and that’s what makes me think it is all stemming from my feet. If anyone other than mark as well would like to chime in with any help please do. Thanks.

    Sean wrote on June 23rd, 2015
    • Hi Sean, are you currently doing any exercises? I commented above about my foot issue, and am not consistent above exercise myself but there is a device you can buy on the Internet to align the spine. What you need is a lot of stretching, perhaps doing Pilate’s, but even regular stretching would be good along with massage (you can use a Thera cane), would be good to relieve the pain bore attempting to work on strengthening the feet. Hope to hear from you soon.

      Eugene wrote on July 10th, 2015
  9. I also have overpronation which is more severe in my left leg than my right which I am assuming is from muscle imbalances stemming from my foot. Anyone help would he greatly appreciated.

    Sean wrote on June 23rd, 2015
  10. Please help anyone I’m in immense pain.

    Sean wrote on June 24th, 2015
    • Hi Sean, are you currently doing any exercises? I commented above about my foot issue, and am not consistent above exercise myself but there is a device you can buy on the Internet to align the spine. What you need is a lot of stretching, perhaps doing Pilate’s, but even regular stretching would be good along with massage (you can use a Thera cane), would be good to relieve the pain before attempting to work on strengthening the feet. Hope to hear from you soon.

      Eugene wrote on July 11th, 2015
  11. Healing Sesamoid Fracture

    Hi Mark – what do you know about Super Cissus and healing bone fractures? I have read good things. I broke my seisamoid in mid march and have been taking Naproxen for a possible Labral tear in my hip for 3 months. My recent foot x ray showed no healing but my MRI showed the bone is still healthy. I am now going to be taking calcium supplements and come off Naproxen and just take glucosamin and cissus. Anything else that could help with the healing? I started eating primal about 6 weeks ago.

    Thank you

    Janna wrote on July 9th, 2015
  12. Hi Mark.

    Im not sure how long ive been flat footed for, becuase i only started getting the pain at 11 years old.
    My mum said it was just growing pains so i tried to ignore it.
    The pain was in my knees but more predominantly in my left knee, which is the flattest foot.
    Ive been to the doctor once about it and they saw nothing wrong in my hips, knees or ankles, but the pain is extremely annoying and sore. It keeps me awake at night so i feel sleepy when im meant to be awake. I work on a farm so im guessing that walking around in wellies from 6-8 isnt a good idea.
    Id love some advice on how to stop the pain in my knees. The doctor adviced pain killers but they dont work. I was wondering if there was any stretches or massages for my knees i coukd try? I use a support of my ankles and knees during sports activities. It doesnt seem to help..

    Olivia wrote on July 13th, 2015
  13. Mark, what about if a person has parkinson’s disease? I love Vibram’s, but with parkinson’s disease — in my case, I cannot walk for long in vibram’s because my feet cramp up due to no ‘shock’ absorbing of the vibrams. Any suggestions? My ankle does not bend properly so the stress of walking is transferred to my toes.

    Thank you, Julie

    Julie Wolf wrote on October 4th, 2015

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