Background Foot-related complications including impaired peripheral circulation and lower limb ulceration are severe consequences for those with diabetes mellitus. This study aimed to assess differences in tissue oxygenation and oxygen utilization of the plantar surface intrinsic foot muscles between diabetic participants and healthy comparisons following short foot exercise and a standard walking protocol. Methods Eighteen participants, 9 with diabetes and 9 healthy age- and sex-matched comparisons, completed two interventions in a randomized order. For the short foot exercise intervention, participants completed 5 sets of 15 intrinsic foot muscle contractions. For the walking intervention, participants completed a modified six-minute walk test. Tissue oxygenation variables including oxygenated hemoglobin, deoxygenated hemoglobin, and tissue saturation index were measured using near-infrared spectroscopy in quiet stance and during intrinsic foot muscle contraction cycles following each intervention. Means, standard deviations, 95 % confidence intervals, mean differences, and Cohen’s d effect sizes were calculated for each tissue oxygenation variable. Results The results of this study indicated no significant group differences in quiet standing tissue oxygenation measures at baseline and following each intervention. Participants in the diabetic group had significantly less change in tissue saturation index during intrinsic foot muscle contractions compared to healthy participants after the short foot exercise intervention (ES= 4.00, P = .0002) and walking intervention (ES= 1.33, P = .015). Conclusions By utilizing wireless NIRS and novel research methodology, this study was able to explore changes in plantar surface tissue oxygenation of the intrinsic foot muscles following a targeted short foot exercise intervention as well as a standard walking protocol in patients diagnosed with diabetes compared to age- and sex- matched individuals without diabetes. We identified that diabetic participants presented with less oxygen utilization during intrinsic foot muscle contractions performed following both exercise interventions compared to their healthy age- and sex- matched comparisons.