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How to Give Yourself a Foot Massage

After a long day on your feet, that old expression “My dogs are barking” might come to mind. But don’t just ignore their cries for help, learn to give yourself a foot massage with a tennis ball — and thank us later.

“Using a tennis ball to release tension in the feet allows the superficial muscles of the feet to relax first, as usually the sites of pain manifest in the deeper muscle and ligament layers of the foot,” says Geraldine Villeneuve, a licensed massage practitioner and certified reflexologist and author of Put Your Best Feet Forward.

“Because of the thousands of nerves in the feet, this exercise is also very beneficial to the brain and nervous system.” A tennis ball is also a good size and texture for beginners to get used to the sensation, which can be uncomfortable — a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10 is normal, but if your foot is very painful, and especially if you can’t bear weight on it, see your doctor to rule out anything more serious.

Start slowly with this routine, with just two to five minutes per foot in the morning, building up to 10 minutes. Be barefoot and take long slow breaths as you go.

Take a Seat

Sit comfortably upright in a chair with a supportive back. “Avoid folding your body to look down at your feet,” Villeneuve says. “Keep your spine as straight as comfortably possible.”

Center the Ball

Place the tennis ball at midfoot and slowly, gently, rock it toward the toes and back to the heel, in 1-inch back-and-forth increments, increasing the range of motion so eventually the ball is rolling between the base of the toes and the heel. “If you lose control of the ball, you are going too fast,” says Villeneuve.

Clear the Zones

Make your rocking and rolling motion a bit more targeted by starting at the outer edge of the foot, from heel toward small toe. Inch over incrementally, back and forth, from each toe to heel, ending with the big toe side of the foot. “Be patient — it’s a little trickier than you may think,” she says. “This reflexology technique  is called ‘clearing the zones,’ which helps to open the energy pathways throughout the body.”

Be Gentle to Your Arch

“To relax the muscles that attach to the arch, you must take care, as this part of the foot is not intended to bear weight or touch the surface of the ground, so it will be more sensitive,” Villeneuve says. Place your arch on the ball, angling your knee so it’s in toward the other knee, and roll the ball lightly back and forth in the arch for three to five passes. Then go cross-foot from arch to edge to release the transverse arch. “This area plays a very integral function in how the feet bear weight.”

Add Some Toe Aerobics

These simple strengthening moves can improve your balance and overall foot strength. Rest the ball of the foot on the ball, wrap your toes around it, clenching and holding for a couple seconds. Release. Do it five times, then place one toe at a time on the ball, pulling it back while applying a bit of pressure, to fully extend and uncurl it. “There is reason for caution here, as many of us wear shoes that confine the toes into narrow toe-box shoes and therefore weakened the toes’ ability to flex and extend,” Villeneuve says  “To avoid cramping in the feet and toes, I like to do this exercise last.”

Take It Standing Up

As your feet become accustomed to the routine, you can ditch your chair in favor of standing in a door frame or near a wall (so it’s handy for balance) instead. This will allow you to increase the pressure, if you want. “Be sure to hold onto the wall and keep your head and shoulders back,” says Villeneuve.

Illustration: Alexandra Gritz

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