What if a Toe Spacer Were Enough to Boost Your Fitness

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The items, sometimes selling for under $10, are becoming a trendy tool for elite athletes and regular exercisers focused on balance and foot flexibility.

By Jen Murphy -WSJ

Forget well-defined abs. Well-spaced toes are the new fitness flex.

For those of us who wear cramped shoes all day, gaps between our toes can be just as hard to attain as a six-pack. Like a strong core, healthy feet are crucial for balance and stability.

The pursuit of perfect toe alignment has made the humble toe spreader the new must-have training tool after previously being associated mainly with pedicures and bunions. You place it between your toes to improve alignment, like braces. The items can cost under $10.

Well-spaced toes come with bragging rights. A photo of model Ashley Graham rocking toe-spreader socks after the 2023 Oscars went viral. Athletes like National Football League player George Kittle and tennis star Novak Djokovic say toe separators have helped give them a performance edge.

Maui, Hawaii-based pro surfer Skylar Lickle says she was stoked to receive a pair as a Christmas gift in December. She’d never paid much attention to her feet until she suffered a knee injury in early 2023. Her physical therapist suggested she work on her toe dexterity since weak feet can affect our movement patterns and lead to muscular imbalances and injuries.

Around the same time, she marveled at the prodigious toe flexibility that a group of pro surfers on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, posted on Instagram. Surfing great Kelly Slater was especially impressive on that score.

“It makes sense,” she says. “In surfing, we use our toes a lot. When I tried to spread my toes, they were unresponsive.”

Lickle says wearing toe spacers regularly, along with doing toe exercises, for three months has improved her balance and stability on and off her surfboard.

The benefits don’t just apply to elite athletes. Susie Rinehart, 52, received a pair of toe spacers last Christmas from her personal trainer.

“I immediately looked down at my feet and thought, she’s giving me a message that they’re ugly,” says the Boulder, Colo., college essay coach. “It felt like someone giving you a breath mint or deodorant.”

Rinehart suffers from nerve damage in her feet. Her trainer assured her that the gift was to help build foot strength, which is important for efficient movement patterns in and out of the gym. “I wish I could say my feet were prettier since wearing them, but they are stronger and my balance has improved,” she says.

When she sports them without sneakers, comments range from, “My grandmother had bunions,” to “Way to go, girl.”

“The people who are in the fitness world are the ones complimenting me,” she says.

Better spread, better balance

The foot should act like a tripod, with weight evenly distributed between the center of the heel, the ball of the big toe and the base of the little toe.

The spacing should be widest at the toes, says Dr. Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. When the toes get scrunched, the foot tripod narrows, which can affect our balance, he says.

Tight shoes that cramp the toes can lead to deformities, such as bunions, where the big toe is pulled toward the smaller toes, and hammer toes, where the toe becomes bent at the middle joint. The wrong shoes can also cause inflammatory conditions like plantar fasciitis.

“Some people just end up with funny-looking feet,” he says. “Others can experience discomfort and pain.” People who are active, like runners, might be more predisposed to injury.

A study published in the medical journal Clinical Biomechanics linked the presence of toe deformities, combined with toe weakness, to increased falls in older people.

Freestyle Feet’s Flamingo Feet, top, the Foot Collective’s Wild Toes, left, and Happy Feet’s foot-alignment socks, right, are among the colorful toe-spacing options. FREESTYLE FEET; THE FOOT COLLECTIVE; HAPPY FEET COMPANY LLC

When we start walking, we should feel our toes, especially our big toes, press into the ground, says Courtney Conley, founder of Gait Happens, an online education resource focused on foot health.

Toe bling

Growing attention to foot health has boosted sales of toe spacers.

Phoenix-based footcare company Naboso had sales of its toe spreaders grow 40% year-over-year between 2022 and 2023, according to founder and podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal. The Foot Collective, a Brisbane, Australia-based footcare company, had a 175% increase in sales of its toe spacers between December 2021 and December 2023, CEO Mac Lyon says.

The devices can be made from felt, foam, or silicone gel. You can find basic toe spreaders in drugstores, while foot specialists sell versions for up to $65. Companies are designing colorful spacers in aqua and plum, and blingy spreaders shaped like gemstones.

Wearing toe spreaders won’t prevent deformities but can relieve the pain they cause, Cardone says. Compared with surgery or physical therapy, they’re a relatively cheap and easy solution to foot pain.

Lyon views toe separators as one tool to achieving better foot health. Their rising popularity is helping people pay attention to their feet, he says. He notes that many are shocked to learn that they should be able to move toes individually, like fingers.

If you can’t, you might try incorporating foot and toe exercises into your daily routine. Even looping your fingers between each of your toes so they “breathe after suffocating in shoes all day,” can make a difference, Lyon says.

Change takes time. Conley says that just like orthotics, toe spacers may feel uncomfortable when you first break them in. If you can’t lift and spread your toes, she suggests starting out wearing them for 10 minutes and gradually increasing to a few hours a day both at rest and while performing daily activities or exercising.

Even if you’re using toe spacers, it’s important to invest in more natural-shaped footwear and commit to strengthening your feet and toes.

“You’re not going to undo 10 hours in narrow shoes by sitting on the couch and wearing toe spreaders,” he says.