With 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments, our feet are marvels of engineering. Their relative health and well-being impact us from head to toe, and the data from the thousands of nerve endings on the soles of our feet give vital positional information to our central nervous system. This allows our musculoskeletal system to quickly react to changes in terrain and adjust on the fly to maintain our balance and upright posture. The skin on the bottom of our foot is the only skin actually intended to bear our full body weight and foot maven Katy Bowman considers the sole of the foot a sensory organ. However, one of the most important functions of the feet and lower leg is the role they play in cardiovascular health via the skeletal muscle pump, a mechanism by which blood is returned from the lower body to the heart.
The skeletal muscle pump, also known as the venous pump, is defined as “contraction of muscle tissue surrounding a lower-limb vein (compartmented by valves), allowing venous return against gravity”. The venous pump is further divided into two types, the foot pump and the calf pump, with the deoxygenated blood (venous return) moving up the lower limb with each step at heel strike and again at toe off. Thus, with every step we take, we are reducing the load on our hard-working heart and helping it to function more efficiently. In addition, a 2004 study by Padberg, Johnston, & Sisto showed promise for lower leg exercise as a treatment for chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a condition where the veins cannot return enough blood to the heart, which can result in swelling, pain, ulcers, and other skin changes.
Putting Your Best Foot Forward
Keeping your feet moving not only feels great, it also is a fantastic and easy way to keep your heart and related cardiovascular structures healthy. Taking the foot through its range of motion will help the deoxygenated blood flow back up to the heart, where it can be reoxygenated and sent on its way to nourish your tissues. To facilitate the pump action from the lower extremities, weight-bearing on the feet to both strengthen and stretch the muscles of the feet and calves is an important component, as is consistent practice. What we do every day generally has more impact on our health than what we do once in a while.
In Yoga Tune Up®, we are big proponents of self-massage to keep our bodies mobile and healthy and to prevent musculoskeletal problems before they can occur. You can use YTU therapy balls on your feet to massage and mobilize both the soft and hard tissues of the feet. This will also increase the circulation in these hard-working tissues. Jill’s book, The Roll Model, goes through wonderful foot and lower leg sequences on pages 194–214, and check out all the previous posts on feet here.
YTU also has great dynamic poses that will get your skeletal muscle pump working—along with challenging your balance, honing your proprioceptive capabilities, and increasing your dynamic stability—are monk walks (walking lunges), marching, and any movements that improve ankle range of motion.
The most important part, however, is to move, as too much sitting or standing can allow the blood to pool in the lower leg, which can ultimately lead to CVI, a condition we all want to avoid. Movement is medicine, motion is lotion, so find some activity you enjoy and let your feet support your heart health!
- Bowman, K. (2014). Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health through Natural Movement. Carlsborg, WA: Propriometrics Press.
- Knight, J., Y. Nigam, & A. Jones. (2009). Effects of bedrest 1: Cardiovascular, respiratory, and haematological systems. Nursing Times 105:21 (early online publication).
- Miller, J. (2014). The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. Las Vegas: Victory Belt.
- Mooney, J. (2009). Illustrated Dictionary of Podiatry and Foot Science. Elsevier Limited. Retrieved from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/venous+pump
- Padberg, P.T., M.V. Johnston, & S.A. Sisto. (2004). Structured exercise improves calf muscle pump function in chronic venous insufficiency: A randomized trial. Journal of Vascular Surgery 39(1): 79–87. doi: http://www.jvascsurg.org/article/S0741-5214(03)01412-5/abstract
- Riggs, K. (2013, April 15). Intrinsic muscles of the feet are too important! [blog]. Retrieved from http://katherineriggs.co.uk/2013/04/15/intrinsic-muscles-of-the-foot-are-too-important/
- Society for Vascular Surgery. (2011, January). Chronic venous insufficiency. Vascular Web. Retrieved from http://www.vascularweb.org/vascularhealth/pages/chronic-venous-insufficiency.aspx
Enjoyed this article? Read Wearing Flip-Flops is Just a Big Flop, Especially for the Flexor Digitorum Longus
The movement of our feet have implications all the up the body.i love how you explained efficient walking as it relates to a well pumping heart. We think the feet only effect us structurally
Wow, your article is very interesting and surprising! The health of the heart connected to the foot! Who would have believed it!
Well explain and documented thanks I will take care of my feet!
Reading this post inspired me to roll my feet under my desk! I’ve never connected the feet to the heart before for increased pump action. Thanks!
I almost always end my stretch yoga class with legs up the wall and tell my students that by taking the weight off of their feet they are literally turning their circulation upside down. Prior to reading this article, I was not aware of the venous pump and it’s function but feel that inverting can be just as beneficial and important for heart health as being more active.
I’m working with seniors and this is a new approch that I’ll start for sure, the feet and the heart connection is a revelation.
No wonder I feel so much better after taking a walk. I am so interested to learn more about how this works. Thanks for the citations, I always appreciate seeing where information comes from.
For most of us, we don’t pay attention to the whispers in our bodies until we are in pain. Feet are one of those areas that we torture in shoes and lose so much control over. Sometimes the other joints are affected like the knees or hips. Reading this article brought back the incredible importance of foot function and awareness not just for joints but to help bring blood back up to the heart. Move them, train them and love them!
It is no wonder that reflexology is so popular. The feet and ankles are not give as much importance in movement , we tend to focus on the bigger muscle groups and ignore the tinier ones. Hence I love this artiecl and emphasis on the feet.I particularly love its role in helping with the deoxygenated blood flow back up to the heart, where it can be reoxygenated and sent on its way to nourish your tissues. Very apt title to a thought provoking article , especially to us teachers to add foot love into our workout sequences. Thanks Dawn.
In the last few years, despite practicing yoga and being at least moderately active, my arches have started falling and my feet have begun to pronate and make that less-than-ideal posture their new normal. After YTU, I LIVE for the end of the day when I can take off my shoes, hold hands with my feet, roll out my arches, and work on toe mobility. This article reinforces my drive to make sure my feet are healthy and can build a better me from the ground up!
I did not know that our feet and lower legs were important to our cardiovascular health. That was certainly a light bulb moment and I will be researching this further. That is so important to know that we really need to take care of our feet. I roll out my feet often but not often enough. Thank for the eye opening information.
I am often talking to my students about the importance of the feet. They are so important for alignment/posture. I had no idea that they were so important for heart health as well, although I’m not surprised. My acupuncturist has spent a lot of time with my feet for various ailments. It is nice to have another thing to add to my list of reasons why we should think about/show some love to our feet! Thank you.
I learned so much from reading your post! I never considered before what a large role the feet play in our bodies’ health- I always just took them for granted. Aside from “grounding down” and equally distributing my weight in yoga class, and what color pedicure I want to get (kidding) I don’t usually give them any more thought. Knowing now what a significant part they play in the central nervous system and cardiovascular system makes me want to take much better care of them! We all must continue to move and be active, engage in self-massage techniques with therapy balls and perform corrective exercises from YTU like Sitting Seza with a strap or baddha konasana with interlaced toes.
Fascinating, the feet function for cardiovascular health via the skeletal muscle pump! Going to dive further, feet first, thank you.
This was so informative! Great article, thank you so much
On dit toujours que tout part des pieds mais c’était la première fois que je lisais un article qui parle des pieds comme étant une pompe pour le système cardio vasculaire. Vraiment, il faut en prendre soins. Merci
Wonderful post! Great to know all the care I give my feet also benefits my heart! I always use my YTU balls after air travel and feel refreshed after. This clearly explains why! 🙂
Thank you for this very informative article. It was explained very clearly and was easy to understand. Movement is very powerful and vital to keep our bodies healthy. Hopefully more people will be motivated not only to promote and introduce their clients to YTU poses and ball rolling for the feet but movement in general!
Great motivating article inspiring movement for health. I will be thinking about this every time I park farther away and walk for my health!
Thank you for explaining the complicated processes in the body, such as blood circulation from the foot to the heart, in such easy to understand/accessible layperson’s terms. I am taking the YTU training currently in part, due to your recommendation. I am learning much and grateful for you for pointing me in this direction.
i try to give my feet as much love as possible but i hadn’t realized that it was helping out my heart as well! t
his info reinforces me to roll my feet daily and massage them nightly. thanks so much ; )
I’ve taught a few sessions that have incorporated foot rolling because they are so integral to everything we do, but I had no idea about the cardiovascular connection! This makes me think about people in my life who have limited mobility and how to incorporate different methods to ensure their leg circulation (venous pump) is functioning optimally.
Thank you Dawn – just another wonderful reason to massage our feet (as if we needed one..it feels so good!) I was thinking this information might also be particular useful in the senior community. My grandmother is not as active as she once was and because of her lack of muscle tone her venous pumps probably need a little more help to act as efficiently as possible, since the natural muscle movement isn’t as powerful there. Her feet could be the heroes of the day and help her increase circulation throughout her body and give her healthier tissue and hopefully a longer, healthier life. Thanks for inspiring me to roll with my grandma!
I think either using a sequence that Jill has previously put together, or simply running your feet through their full range of motion on regular schedule is a great idea. Since we are on our feet all the time we most likely believe that we do. However the mechanics of our regular walking movements don’t suffice to cover every direction of movement, for the majority of us. Even if we manage that during our regular day it’d hard to imagine we are doing it in a manner that’s supportive or restorative. I can see this being helpful for people who fall on both sides of the fence: those who get very little activity, elderly or infirmed, as well as those with high activity.
We talk a lot about how so many people sit all day long and the effects that has on their hips, but there are also millions of people who have to stand all day long because of their job, and this wrecks havoc on their feet. The drills shown in your blog are incredible for renewing their stiff foot tissues and help them get supple again.
As a yoga teacher we always talk about how the foundation of everything is our feet – we seem to forget this …
Now I am encouraged to massage my feet daily – no excuses … happy feet happy/healthy heart.
Great article! The connection of feet to heart health is a new one for me but it makes total sense! A little ball rolling and some feet exercises that we learned in YTU Level 1 training and I’ll be good to go!
Being a hairstylist and standing on my feet all day I had never noticed how that effected my feet. Since I started using the YTU balls on my feet though, I have felt and seen such huge improvements!
I know that the YTU ball work for the feet has really helped my daughter, who is in soccer cleats 5 days a week…preventative maintenance!
This is a very good piece of information for me, since I have a personal issue with my feet specially at the level of the quadratus plantae, I suffer pain which is a very specific trigger point and I roll up the balls every day to ease up the pain. And yyou know what ? It works, I can now walk more easy, it’s only after a long period of inactivity the pain comes back.. I have heard that my diabetic condition could be partially responsible for this pain. I’m looking forward to heal my heel.. and I will succeed
Happy Feet, Healthy Heart. Amazing!
I am targeting feet this week in my classes – How I will share this information – Thanks!
I hadn’t thought about the link between the feet and the heart. I know there are veins in the legs and feet that work against gravity to bring blood back to the heart, but didn’t know that it is actually considered a “pump”, let alone that there are two of them (the foot pump and the calf pump). Of course activity is important to our well-being, but I now have greater insight as to what is going on in the body. Thank you!
Wow! I had never heard of the skeletal muscular pump, its fascinating. The feet are holding up our entire posture and this gives an additional reason to focus on the feet during classes and to use my YTU balls to massage the sole of my feet.
Thanksore this great read. I am inspired to do more walking and more foot massage. I am also even more interested in reading some Bowman.
I have never heard of the skeletal muscular pump and this will now be my favorite fun fact to throw into my classes. I feel like it’s the epitome of what yoga teaches us, that the health of our feet literally affects the way our heart beats and the way blood flows in the body.
I love the fact that the foot has a relationship with our cardiovascular function, in walking and keep the movement to reduce cardio vascular diseaseas and also relate to the pumpin of the blood circulating from feet to the heart.
While I was running barefoot on the beach a few months ago, I was feeling an extreme amount of pain on the top of my left foot after the run. I continued to wear flip flops and wedges and walk in the sand. The pain continued to linger when I returned home to New York. I teach hot power vinyasa, so I am constantly running across the room adjusting, demoing poses, and instructing. My foot began to hurt more and more. I went to a doctor and the X-RAY showed nothing. We came to the conclusion that it could be a stressfracture, but if I knew how many structural components were in the feet I would’ve taken better care of my foot so I would be limping in a boot! Thank you for this information to keep in mind in the future.
Wow, I never knew the connection of heathly feet to heart health.
Great blog. Thanks for reiterating the importance of the feet and reminding us of the many structures comprising the feet. Movement is medicine, motion is lotion, what a great mantra!!I didn’t know the soleus is considered the 2nd heart. The venous pump information is interesting. amazing how we are so interconnected.
I appreciate the references posted in this article. A review of anatomy and better understanding of how our valves and cardiovascular system works helps us paint a more clear picture. I like the what you said about “motion is lotion” as it indeed lubricates our joints. I believe our feet give us a good indicator and perhaps guidance for other areas of the body. For instance, if there is glute weakness or hip or lumbar instability, I’ve found there is more often than not overuse of the lower leg, calf and intrinsic muscles of the foot. Great reminder regarding how important our feet are. The stronger the foundation, the more stable the body can be =)
The phrase “What we do every day generally has more impact on our health than what we do once in a while” truly resonated on me. I listen often from people whom attend my yoga class how wonderful they feel after class, how relaxed and happy they feel. However, they all say it’s hard to keep this sensation throughout the day. A teacher once told me that you should take what you do or learn on the mat to your everyday life, I always thought she meant the spiritual realizations or the aha moments regarding character buiilding. Which it is but also, I think it is important for people to incorporate the way the move, pose, work on their postures on class to their everyday life. We are always repeating at class relax your neck, your neck doesn’t carry your legs its your core when doing navasana for instance. I see a lot of people lifting their kids, carrying laundry bags, grocery bags with their necks! So I always encourage students to take all the alignment cues, movement cues to the activities they do on regular life. That´s a way of releasing tension on muscles that should be doing some moves, by doing so they get to do what they are meant for and be relaxed… and thus the whole body become more relax, people minds get relaxed and happy. It is health and happiness feeling around the clock not only at yoga class.
My new mantra is your motion is lotion – I love it. Along similar lines, Travell and Simons in their classic trigger point manuals have nicknamed the soleus the “second heart” because of the help it gives to the venous return. I never thought to take it even lower to the feet! I have some new ideas to ponder after reading your article.
I truly enjoyed your post, I agree with you healthy feet bring lightness in the heart, when you feet feels like “cement blocks”, you drag your feet, it becomes hard to move, this inadvertly affects our mood. The ball rolling on the feet is a way to keep the kinetic chain rolling, what is happening on your feet is a direct communication to the knees the hips and the spine. I agree with you that “movement is medicine and motion is lotion”.
I practice Ayurveda and at the end of the day I love to massage my feet with Base oils. I find this is grounding and also a great way to self-care. I will add to my daily oil massage regimen a therapy ball roll to work both hard and soft tissues. If areas that feel weak or sore, to add a ball roll there too. Thank u. The book has excellent photos.
Recently my father came to visit me. He is a man in his 60s and spends a lot of time on his feet. He mentioned to me that he was concerned because he was losing the sensation in his toes. I immediately grabbed my YTU ball and took him through some exercises. The next day he was amazed that the feeling in his toes had returned. He is now a convert. He massages his feet everyday and is explore the use of the YTU balls in different parts of his body. Last time we spoke he asked me to thank Jill for gifting his feet back to him.
I can’t wait to see the result on my feet,, I’ve been suffering from heal pain since almost a year and now that I discover the Yoga tune up balls I really want to try this on my feet
Dawn, I loved reading this blog post and have shared this “walking is good for your heart” message with many people. I love the physiological explanation and the highlighting that movement of any kind is good for your health and specifically your heart. I’m inspired to do all of the activities I love more often.
Rolling out the feet is one of my favorite introductions to body rolling and students are often amazed at how their feet feel even after a short period of time. I enjoyed the information on the venous pump. The calf is indeed the body’s “second heart!.”
I often suggest to my overly tight clients to just roll out their feet or stand on the ball on their heel. They tell me that it helps them more than they would have ever thought.
I will be rolling my feet tonight! Thanks for the information about the blood flow that is stimulated through walking.
Recently I have begun making a more concentrated effort to walk when I can. Well it has made such a difference to my energy throughout the entire day! I really believe we should walk every day. Great article!
Lately I noticed that there was a numb spot in the middle and upper part of my foot. It felt like my foot was working differently to the other one, trying to find the balance with that blind spot in the middle. I’ve use the balls to roll it off and it seems it has been working well for me.
LOVE THIS! I’m learning how important our feet truly are. Thank you for sharing all the goodness of rolling and paying attention to our hard working body parts. The feet are not a part we often think of, squishing them into cute heels, and not taking the time to give them breathing room. This is so informative and absolutely inspiring.
Love this article. Super interesting. Makes me want to mooooooove!
I love this post!! I’m going to be using it and the other articles on feet to reiterate the importance of MOVING! to my clients and particapants in my other classes not just my Yoga Tune-Up Classes
I can’t sit still personally. Thanks for writing such an informative article. 🙂
Dawn, you have put this so eloquently and clearly and brought new new delicious information to pass on to my patients. In my practice as a chiropractor, I almost always adjust the feet, especially if I adjust the neck. Then I have my patients practice one foot standing exercises for balance and to allow the body to adjust to its new level of information coming from the feet.
The information on cardiovascular health is something I will add to their education. Thank you SO much, Dr. Icia
Very interesting post! I was wondering whether tending towards cold feet (presumably due to poor circulation) is at all related to CVI as well?
I had no idea that the actual movement of standing and walking can reduce the load of work on our heart. This is so important for those of us that sit all day or commute, or even those of us that are aging, Get up and walk, and take the load off your heart! Thanks for sharing I found this so interesting!
Great read! I don’t think enough people understand how important the feet and lower legs are to maintaining healthy movement. We use our feet everyday to get us from pint A to point B without giving maintenance a second though.
Great post – I often think of the feet as those body parts down there and not how vital they are to the heart as well. I am flat footed and have to take extra special care of my feet. Recently at a Yoga Tune Up Integrated Anatomy session I developed a 2 minute therapy ball maneuver focusing on the feet which I had to teach my fellow instructors in training. This started with a mental map of the foot, the fore- , mid – and hind sections and understanding the various bones and what the arch is comprised of. From there we did some work standing on the 2 balls at the same time rolling first on the forefoot and then the back of the midfoot, right where it meets the hindfoot inverting and everting the feet on top of the balls was a simple effective way to help release pressure and relax the feet after a long day.
As a cardiologist, I can tell you that exercise improves not just venous insufficiency but it is also, in combination with cilostazol, the first line of treatment for peripheral arterial disease. With regards to venous insufficiency, as we age the valves in our veins begin to degenerate (in some people more than others), and regular exercise and inversions can certainly assist. The regular contraction of the muscles surrounding the veins in the legs can manually compress the veins and help pump blood against gravity back up to the heart and regular inversions can use gravity as a tool for blood to travel from the legs more superiorly. Manual massage with therapy balls most likely could exert similar effects although not well studied as yet.
Great blog. So informative. I will introduce foot rolling to one of my mature client who has about everything you talk about gong on, from swelling to skin rashes he definately sits to much he could greatly benefit from using his leg pump more.
I am a physical therapist and now going through 200 hr YTT. You make a wonderful point of how important it is to move to promote good blood flow and heart health. But what if your client or patient cannot move so easily? Are you working with someone with an injury, someone elderly, a child with cerebral palsy? I wanted to share with everyone another way to do this and it is what we physical therapists call ankle pumps. Instead of the pumping motion from walking, you can do this pumping motion in while sitting or laying down. Simply move your ankle up and down in dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, simulating the same pump you would get with walking. We have our patients in the hospital do these all the time to promote good blood flow and decrease the pooling of the blood in the legs.
Thank you Dawn for this blog. We all tend to ignore our feet until they start to hurt. As they are our foundation, we need to show them the love….I agree that Jill’s sequence in her book The Roll Model is awesome. I recently had foot issues and my feet really “kneaded” some work…I have my YTU balls in the bathroom, the kitchen, family room. I roll out while in the kitchen slicing and dicing, washing dishes and even while blow drying my hair. My feet are so happy!!
Great article Dawn. Thank you for that.