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