Go naked – from the ankles down, at least. Turns out barefoot activities can greatly improve balance and posture and prevent common injuries.

The small, often overlooked muscles in the feet that play a vital but under-appreciated role in movement and stability. Their role is similar to that of the core muscles in the abdomen. “If you say ‘core stability,’ everyone sucks in their bellybutton,” said Patrick McKeon, a professor in Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance. “Part of the reason why is about appearance, but it’s also because a strong core is associated with good fitness.” The comparison between feet and abs is intentional on McKeon’s part; he wants people to take the health of their “foot core” just as seriously.

McKeon describes a feedback cycle between the larger “extrinsic” muscles of the foot and leg, the smaller “intrinsic” muscles of the foot, and the neural connections that send information from those muscle sets to the brain. "Those interactions become a very powerful tool for us,” he said. When that feedback loop is broken, though, it can lead to the overuse injuries that plague many an athlete and weekend warrior alike. Shoes are the chief culprit of that breakdown. When you put a big sole underneath, you put a big dampening effect on that information. There's a missing link that connects the body with the environment."

It’s not that McKeon is opposed to footwear. “Some shoes are very good, from the standpoint of providing support. But the consequence of that support, about losing information from the foot, is what we see the effects of in overuse injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis, and tendonitis in the Achilles tendon." The simplest way to reintroduce the feedback provided by the small muscles of the foot is to shed footwear when possible. McKeon says activities like Pilates, yoga, martial arts, some types of dance, etc. are especially beneficial. "Anything that has to deal with changing postures and using the forces that derive from the interaction with the body and the ground is great for developing foot core strength,” he said.