Ankle arthritis, most often caused by osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, can lead to pain and stiffness that affect your ability to participate in the activities you love. For those with arthritis in the ankle, exercises can be a beneficial tool for reducing inflammation and other painful symptoms. With the help of some of our favorite physical therapists, we’ve put together the best ankle arthritis exercises to add to your routine.
How Exercise Reduces Ankle Arthritis Pain
There are some major benefits to regularly strengthening and stretching the ankle joint, including some much needed joint pain relief. Exercises help promote better blood flow for healing, reduces local swelling, restores tissue extensibility and so much more. Ultimately, these benefits mean you can expect a reduction in flare-ups and ankle pain from daily activities and increase your tolerance.
(If you’d like some guidance with these exercises and more, consider scheduling a round of physical therapy.)
Decreased ankle range of motion can affect simple daily activities like your ability to stand or walk. Regularly focusing on ankle flexibility and joint range of motion can make a huge difference.
If your symptoms are moderate to severe, try to stretch daily. With time, as your symptoms decrease, you may only need to stretch before certain aggravating activities. Please keep in mind that if you have any bone spurs in your foot or ankle (if you’re aware of them), never force an exercise that feels “off.”
1. Ankle pumps
You can complete this exercise seated or long sitting on the floor (or even in your bed). It is great for increasing both ankle plantarflexion and dorsiflexion in one fluid motion.
Keep your heels resting on the ground for support, while still being able to move your toes freely and comfortably
Bring your toes up toward your shins as far as is comfortable and hold for 1-2 seconds
Then, return your foot to the starting position before pointing the toes completely in the opposite direction (pointing the toes) and hold for another 1-2 seconds
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total, always keep the motion slow and controlled
2. Ankle Rotations
This exercise is great for boosting general ankle range of motion in all directions.
Sit in a chair with the foot you want to stretch off the ground so that it can move freely, or long sit on the edge of your bed so that feet are dangling
Rotate the ankle clockwise as if your big toe is drawing the biggest possible circle
Repeat 10 times in one direction before repeating in the opposite direction
Repeat for 2-3 sets on each ankle daily
3. Standing Calf Stretch
Grab a dual calf stretcher for this specific stretch. The calves (and achilles tendon) are notoriously tight with any foot and ankle issues, so you can get some serious relief with this one.
Place your calf stretcher near a chair or wall for balance
Put one foot at a time on the stretcher, make sure both your feet are comfortable
Shift your weight into your heels as you bring them closer to the ground and the toes up toward the ceiling
Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets
To focus more exclusively on range of motion, you can also choose to slowly rock back and forth (instead of holding) for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
If you don’t have a calf stretcher, there are plenty of other great options. These include sitting (on the floor or in a chair) with a stretch strap around the ball of the foot or a standing lunge.
4. Toe Flexion
This is a great exercise for the foot and ankle since the entire area can get stiff when arthritis is present. Any exercise that promotes blood flow can give you great relief.
Start by long sitting on the floor or in a chair
Position your foot so that heels are resting on the ground and toes are free to move
Then, simply alternate between flexing and extending the toes as far as is comfortable in each direction
Repeat for 15 repetitions, completing 2-3 sets total
The foot and ankle is a relatively small area in the body, yet there’s a lot going on. The number of muscles that cross the ankle for proper leg and foot function is big. Keeping these muscles in balance and strong will help you preserve the best possible function for your affected joints.
5. Calf raises
This is a great exercise for building calf strength, a key muscle for coordinating everyday moves like walking and standing. You can start with both feet together and eventually progress to a single leg calf raise when you’re comfortable.
Stand near a chair or wall for balance if necessary
Have the feet approximately hip width apart with the toes pointing straight forward
Shift your weight forward in the balls of your feet as you lift both your heels off the ground
As you lift your heels, imagine there is a string pulling your head and body straight up (rather than leaning forward or backward)
Lift the heels up as high as possible, ensuring that your lower legs stay relatively stable without excessive wobbling or pain
Hold at the top of your range for an extra beat (1-2 seconds) before slowly returning to the starting position with control
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
6. Toe raises
This exercise is great for strengthening the top of the foot, ankle, and shin while also promoting active ankle range of motion. Keep in mind that the motion should be small and pain free.
Use a chair or the wall for balance if needed
Stand with the feet hip width apart and toes facing straight forward
Lift both toes up off the ground as you shift your weight into both of your heels
Keep the heels firmly planted and do not let the low back arch or hips bend
Hold for 1-2 seconds at the top of your tolerable range before slowly returning to the starting position
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
7. Resistance Band Ankle Exercises (3-way)
Strengthening all the small muscle groups that help control the ankle is always beneficial. Grab a light to moderate resistance band. Repeat each exercise for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets total, focusing on staying slow and in control.
Wrap middle of the band around the ball of your foot while long sitting on the floor
Secure both ends of the band with your hands at a comfortable level of resistance
Point the toes down toward the floor as you push the ball of the foot against the band resistance
Keeping the band in the same position, now wrap both pieces of the band around the opposite foot to change the angle of resistance
Hold the band ends with the hand opposite of the foot you’re working
Move the toes away from the body and hold, do not let the kneecap or hips rotate outward
Return to your original starting position and then cross your feet so that the foot you’re working is on top
Hold both band ends with the same hand as your foot, hold your hand out to the side at an angle
Bring the toes inward toward the middle of the body as you push against the resistance
8. Single Leg Balance
This exercise is a great catch all high level exercise that helps you coordinate the entire lower body and core at once. It is great for boosting overall ankle stability.
Stand near a counter, wall, or chair for balance and safety
Place the leg you will be using to balance on your choice of surface
Shift all of your weight into your leg as you lift the opposite one off the ground
Focus on keeping the abs tight and leg as stable as possible as you find your balance
Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg
To progress, increase the difficulty of the surface you’re standing on or add dynamic moves such as head turns and arm exercises
Self massage is a great economical way to get quick relief from lower leg pain and stiffness. When massaging the ankle, foot, or lower leg, it's always important to choose a pressure that you can tolerate without tensing up. To gain the most benefits, you should be able to relax. If you need more help with managing symptoms and treatment, see our full article on treating ankle arthritis.
Place the roller on your calf just below the knee, keeping it horizontal to the ground
Use both hands to push into your calf as you slowly roll up and down the entire muscle between the knee and ankle
Roll up and down the muscles for up to 5 minutes to get relief
Other options for a calf massage include using a foam roller or your hands
There is no better exercise for gaining functional benefits than walking. We all must do it in some form on a daily basis. It is a great form of daily exercise as well to manage proper body weight and achieve a healthy weight that reduces strain on the ankle ligaments. That’s why it is a great option for ankle arthritis as long as your symptoms are manageable. If you can walk comfortably without a significant limp or increased pain, then go for it. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Start on less dynamic surfaces like concrete or a rubber rice track, progress to trail walking and softer surfaces like grass only when you feel comfortable
When deciding to start walking regularly, always choose a distance and speed that is comfortable for your ankle, progress with time in accordance with your symptoms
The goal is to be able to walk at an aerobic pace that gets your heart rate up and blood pumping
Choose comfortable shoes and/or insoles that adequately support your foot and ankle ligaments
Adding Exercises to Your Daily Routine
With these exercises and close attention to your symptoms, you should notice a gradual improvement in your ankle function to be able to return to your normal daily activities. The biggest benefit is the confidence you will gain in your own ankle. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can always talk to your orthopedic doctor, podiatrist, or physical therapist for advice on getting started.
As always, if your symptoms aren’t improving, they are affecting your quality of life, or getting worse- get in touch with a medical professional for further medical advice. For extreme cases, a joint replacement may be required.
JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.
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