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Simple Foot Exercises for Arthritis Pain

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 15, 2022 0 Comments

Foot exercise

Foot arthritis most often comes with symptoms of pain and stiffness. Since you need your feet to stay balanced and use them with every step you take, arthritis can make life feel a lot harder than is necessary. Appropriate foot exercises for arthritis should definitely be a part of your management and treatment plan, regardless if it’s from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or other joint related issues. The right mix of movement, strength, and flexibility will help preserve foot function for as long as possible. Keep reading to learn more about the best exercises for foot arthritis.

Toe Stretches

The toe joints themselves can be affected by arthritis. In fact, one of the most common joints to be affected in the foot is where the big toe and foot meet, known as the first metatarsophalangeal joint (MTP).

Gentle toe stretches can promote circulation, healing, and reduce overall stiffness and pain.

Toe Range of Motion

Bringing the toes through a full rhythmic range of motion is very therapeutic when dealing with arthritis. This type of stretch is especially helpful in the mornings or after a period of rest when the foot is feeling especially stiff.

  • Start by long sitting with the legs out straight and touching the floor (or bed)
  • Let the feet rest on the ground in a comfortable position with the toes facing up toward the ceiling
  • Now, curl the toes under as far as they can go and hold for 1-2 seconds
  • Next, move the toes in the opposite direction to extend them back as far as you can comfortably and hold again for 1-2 seconds
  • Alternate slowly between these two positions for 10-15 repetitions
  • Repeat for up to 3 sets as needed each day

Toe Extension Stretch

This stretch can feel amazing on the toes themselves. Plus, it provides a gentle stretch to the bottom of the foot. As always, proceed gently at first.

  • Sit in a chair with the foot you’ll be stretching across your knee so that you can reach your toes (outside of the ankle touching the knee)
  • Take your opposite hand and grab the bottom of your toes, near the ball of the foot
  • Use your hand to pull your toes back into an extended position while keeping your ankle in a neutral position
  • Continue to move your toes until a stretch is felt at the base of the toes and potentially into the arch of the foot
  • For a stronger arch stretch, you can dorsiflex the ankle (bring the top of the foot closer to the shin) further too
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets total

You can also add overpressure to toe flexion (the opposite direction), if you want a stronger stretch in this direction as well.

Calf Stretches

When foot arthritis symptoms are present, it can leave the entire foot and ankle complex feeling stiff and sore. The largest muscles in the lower leg that most often get stiff, and can further affect your daily function, are the calves (the gastrocnemius and soleus). Some gentle stretches can give you some great relief.

Standing Calf Stretch

Using a calf stretcher is one of the simplest ways to get a consistent good stretch in the local muscles and the achilles tendon. Just grab your calf stretcher, or even a double calf stretcher, to get started.

  • Stand near the wall, a chair, or a counter for balance
  • Place the calf stretching tool on the ground near your balancing surface
  • Put the foot you want to stretch in the center of your stretcher so that the toes are pointing straight forward
  • Shift your weight into your foot on the tool, finding good balance
  • Keep your knee straight and posture upright as you let your heel drop down toward the floor and bring your toes up toward the ceiling
  • Continue to shift until you feel a strong stretch in the calf muscles
  • Hold for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets 
  • To get a deeper stretch, you can also try repeating the stretch with the knee bent

If you don’t have a calf stretcher, there are plenty of other options available for stretching your calf too. You can try standing on the edge of a step, standing in a lunge position, or sitting on the floor with a stretch strap or towel.

Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility

In addition to calf stiffness, the mobility of the ankle joint itself can become limited as well. Thus, this stretch is designed to target the connective tissues that actually comprise the ankle joint. Ankle dorsiflexion is often one of the most restricted ankle movements, so this mobility exercise is great.

  • Get in a kneeling lunge position on the floor, with the ankle you want to stretch in the front
  • Make sure your front foot is pointing straight forward and keep the knee aligned over the toes- not flaring in or out
  • Shift your weight forward while keeping the front foot completely flat on the floor
  • Attempt to get your knee over the top of the toes (or even further if possible)
  • Stop when you feel a stretch in the ankle joint, you may or may not feel it in the calf muscles too
  • Hold for 3-5 seconds
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets per day

Foot Strengthening

There are 19 muscles in the foot. Plus, there are another 10 muscles that originate in the lower leg and cross the ankle to attach within the foot complex itself. Joint pain and stiffness can compromise the strength and coordination in these muscles, making foot strengthening exercises that promote balance essential. Plantar fasciitis is also common with foot arthritis and can be prevented or better managed with these exercises too.

Toe Scrunches

All you need for this exercise is a chair and a hand towel. It can look deceivingly easy when getting started but is a great strengthener for the intrinsic toe flexors.

  • Sit in a chair with both of your feet flat on the floor
  • Place your hand towel flat on the ground and underneath your feet, putting the majority of the fabric in front of your toes
  • Keep the heels and midfoot firmly planted on the ground as you lift the toes up toward the ceiling
  • With the toes lifted, reach them as far forward as possible before placing them back on the towel
  • Finally, scrunch the toes under as you attempt to bring the entire towel under the arch of your foot
  • Repeat this movement 10 times for up to 3 sets
  • Adjust your towel as needed back to the starting position to complete your repetitions and sets

Marble Pick Ups

This exercise is similar to toe scrunches, but offers a great progression for adding even more dexterity to your toes and feet. Grab a handful of marbles, or other small objects that you can pick up with your feet.

  • Sit in a chair with your feet comfortably on the floor
  • Place your marbles, or other small objects, on the ground
  • If you aren’t on carpet you may need to use a mat or towel to keep the marbles from rolling away
  • Place a cup or container on one side of the marbles
  • Use your toes to pick up one marble at a time and place it in the cup
  • Continue until all the marbles are picked up
  • Repeat for up to 3 sets
  • Try moving the cup to different positions for more of a challenge
  • If needed, try using toe separators to help with your toe alignment while completing the exercise

Single Leg Balance

Balancing on one leg is one of the best ways to challenge the intrinsic muscles of the foot. Plus, it’s a very functional move that will help improve your tolerance for daily activities.

  • Stand on the floor near a chair, wall, or counter for safety if needed
  • Shift your weight into the leg you want to balance on
  • Keep a good upright posture as you lift your opposite foot off the ground
  • Hold your balance, focusing on a focal point as needed
  • Only use your hand for balance and safety if needed
  • Keep your balance for 30+ seconds, with a goal of reaching 60 seconds
  • To further challenge your balance, stand on a softer surface such as a foam pad or wobble board
  • Additionally, you can add add even more challenge with small arm movements, leg movements, and other activities that challenge your attention

Ankle Strengthening

A strong and coordinated ankle can help preserve the function of your foot as much as possible. It’s always best to start with basic non-weight bearing exercises and then progress to more 

functional movements as tolerated- such as squats, lunges, and more.

3-Way Ankle Strengthening

 

The ankle moves in four primary directions. Balanced strength between the muscles that coordinate these movements helps preserve better foot and ankle function. These basic band strengthening exercises are the best way to target specific muscle groups. The three covered below can be done without help, whereas the fourth movement resisted dorsiflexion would require assistance or creative adjustment of the band.

  • Long sit on the floor with a light resistance band to start
  • Firstly, set up your band for resisted ankle plantarflexion
  • Place the band around the foot near the base of the toes
  • Hold each end of the band with your hands and apply appropriate resistance to your foot by pulling back with the arms (keeping your arms tucked into your side)
  • Press against the resistance on the bottom of your foot as you point the toes
  • Move as far as is comfortable, slowly moving back and forth
  • Repeat 10 times for 2-3 sets
  • Next, move on to ankle eversion by wrapping both band ends under the opposite foot
  • Hold both ends with the opposite hand to create resistance against the outside edge of the foot 
  • Press the foot outward against the band without rotating the hips or knees 
  • Continue moving slowly and with control in both directions
  • Repeat 10 times for 2-3 sets
  • Finally, it’s time for ankle inversion
  • Remove the band from under the opposite foot and cross your legs so that your banded foot is on top
  • Hold both bands in the same hand, bringing the ends as far away from the body and foot as possible to create diagonal that puts resistance on the inner foot
  • Move the toes inward and across the body as you keep the upper leg still
  • Repeat with control 10 times for 2-3 sets
  • Add resistance and repetitions as needed for an appropriate challenge

Heel Raises on a Step

This functional strengthening exercise focuses on ankle coordination while targeting the calf muscles. Having this strength is so important for daily activities like walking and getting out of bed.

  • Grab a stepping stool or stand at the bottom of a set of stairs to get started
  • Step on the top of the step, placing the base of your toes near the edge so that your heels are hanging off the back
  • Let your heels fall down toward the floor as far as possible, keeping the movement controlled
  • Then, reverse directions and push through your midfoot as you lift the heels above the level of the step
  • Go as high as possible while still maintaining good ankle stability (no wobbling or pain)
  • Continue alternating between these two moves slowly for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets
  • If this move is too hard, you can start on the floor and lift the heels from there
  • If this move is getting too easy, you can progress to single leg heel raises

Low-Impact Cardio

Developing arthritis in any joint of the lower body can make it feel unmotivating to stay active. Yet, there are immense benefits to regular consistent exercise, particularly blood flow to help with healing and local tissue health. Your best option for staying active without aggravating your arthritis symptoms and feeling discouraged is low impact cardio. That way you can get all of the benefits of regular exercise while reducing strain on the joints.

Recumbent Biking

The lowest impact option for regular exercise is the use of a recumbent bike, either at the gym or in the comfort of your own home. If you don’t have room or the budget for this piece of equipment, you can also try a more basic pedal bike. The simplest way to get started is to choose a program on the screen, indicating a specific resistance level and time, and start pedaling.

Stepping Workout

You don’t necessarily need a piece of cardio equipment to get in a good low impact cardio workout. All you truly need is some space to step in place. From there, you can add dynamic arms movements, leg movements and more. With a little guidance and the right music, you can get your heart rate up and have fun moving around your living room. There is no right or wrong way to do it as long as you are moving.

Other low impact cardio options:

Additionally, here are some other great options for getting your heart rate up:

  • Light weight lifting- high repetitions with short breaks, typically it’s best to alternate between upper and lower body for maximal cardio benefits
  • Get in a pool- try water jogging, water aerobics, or swimming laps 
  • Walking- choose a speed that you can tolerate for 30 or more minutes, getting on softer surfaces like rubber rice or grass (if you can tolerate the terrain) can help reduce impact too
  • Seated arm and leg workouts- all you need is your body weight, then you can add weights or bands as tolerated
  • Other cardio machines- such as an elliptical, upright bike, or a row machine

Tips for Foot Exercises

Now that you have a variety of exercises to try for best managing your foot arthritis, you may be wondering how to get started and maximize your results. Let’s review some tips for optimizing your exercise routine and overall foot health:

  • Always start your exercise program slowly and gradually progress
  • Begin with gentle foot and ankle stretches, adding in strengthening as tolerated
  • Progress from non-weight bearing to weight bearing exercise as tolerated
  • Use your foot and ankle pain, and any other symptoms, as a gauge for when it’s time to progress or modify your program
  • Combine your exercise program with other foot arthritis treatment options, such as ice, heat, massage, medication and more.

    Foot Arthritis Treatments

  • Optimize your foot mechanics and prevent unnecessary foot problems with proper shoewear and orthotics
  • For professional and personalized guidance, consider working with a physical therapist. Physical therapy can potentially maximize your outcomes and help you feel confident in 
  • Stay consistent with your exercise program to keep your arthritis well managed

Adding Toe Spacers to Your Stretches and Daily Activities

wearing toe seperators

If you have overlapping toes due to your arthritis, you can make the stretches we just covered more functional (and comfortable) with individual toe spacers or separators that spread all of the toes at once while doing the stretches to promote better toe alignment.  Plus, you can wear your toe spacers or separators with daily activities, like walking and standing, to promote gentle toe stretching while you move around in your home.

How Exercising Helps Foot Arthritis

Exercise has so many great benefits for your overall health, regardless of whether you have foot arthritis or not. Here are some of the potential benefits you can expect when regularly exercising your feet:

  • Arthritis pain relief via blood flow, healing, and the release of the body’s natural pain relieving endorphins
  • Increased ankle, foot, and toe range of motion
  • Optimal muscle strength and coordination for daily activities 
  • Better weight management to reduce strain on the joints of the lower body
  • Improved biomechanics to preserve foot alignment and reduce unnecessary strain
  • Boosted confidence in the function of your foot and ankle
  • Better preservation of foot function for as long as possible 

Keep Moving

Foot arthritis can be well managed with the right plan in place. You can feel confident in your treatment program when it involves the right balance of stretching, strengthening, and pain management to maximize function. Voice any concerns about your foot health or quality of life to your orthopedic doctor, podiatrist, or physical therapist. If your symptoms suddenly change it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Sources:

https://creakyjoints.org/diet-exercise/foot-exercises-stretches-for-arthritis-foot-pain/

https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/health-encyclopedia/he.foot-arthritis-exercises.bo1546

https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=bo1546

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

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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