Although the pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may cause you to assume that you can no longer exercise, rheumatology specialists say that moving your joints can help combat pain and boost your energy levels. If you experience symptoms in the joints of your feet and ankles, performing an exercise routine may help you increase mobility and decrease pain.
“Exercise does help me prevent stiffness,” wrote one myRAteam member. Another said, “I rotate my wrists and ankles, then move my fingers and toes before getting out of bed. Stretch with hands high every time you get up from the couch! It all adds up.”
If you’re interested in learning some exercises to help ease pain and stiffness in your feet and ankles, consider trying some of the moves recommended by Randi B. Likely, an exercise physiologist who has lived with RA since she was 16. Likely sat down with myRAteam to share the moves that she finds most helpful for RA symptoms in the feet.
Make sure to get medical advice from your rheumatology care team before starting any exercise program so you can ensure you perform the moves that align with your doctor’s medical advice.
To help build up the muscles around your feet and ankles, you can perform towel pickups, Likely says. To do this move, you can either be sitting or standing. First, you’ll lay a small towel (like a washcloth) on the floor below your foot. Move your bare foot over the towel, flex your toes, and pick up the towel with your toes, then set it back on the floor. You can also elevate this move to picking up marbles with your toes once you master it.
“This exercise is really good because it helps increase the musculature around the ankle and strengthens the stability of the ankle,” Likely said. “This exercise also helps strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the feet, which are those muscles that you don’t really work out when you just walk from day to day. They’re really important because they strengthen the bottom of the feet and help curb conditions like plantar fasciitis, which people with RA may have to deal with.”
To help strengthen the muscles and ligaments on the inside of your ankles, you can perform a foot roll, also referred to as an inversion exercise, either with shoes on or with bare feet.
To perform this move, start with your foot on the ground, and then rotate it so the bottom is facing your other foot. Then rotate your foot back so the bottom is facing the floor again.
“You want to make sure the musculature on the inside of your ankles stays strong to help relieve any pain in that area,” Likely said. “You can perform this move with about five repetitions before moving to the other foot.”
During the floor rotation, which is referred to as an eversion exercise, you’re working to strengthen the outside of the foot.
Start with your foot resting on the floor. Then slowly rotate the sole of your foot so it’s facing the opposite direction from your other foot. Next, rotate your foot so it’s facing the floor again.
“This will help work the muscles and ligaments on the outside of your foot,” Likely notes. You can repeat this exercise four or five times on each foot.
Perform the heel stretch (also referred to as the dorsiflexion move) to strengthen the muscles in front of the legs, which can make walking easier and take pressure off your knee and foot joints.
First, rest your foot flat on the ground, and then rotate it so your toes are pointing toward the ceiling and your heel remains on the ground. Then lower your foot back to the floor again and repeat four or five times on each foot.
To work the muscles on the backs of your ankles, feet, and legs, you’ll perform a toe point.
Start with your feet resting on the floor. Then lift your heel off the ground and point your toe in front of you, with your toes resting on the floor. Slowly lower your heel back down and then repeat the move four or five times before switching to the other foot.
“This helps to strengthen the muscles in the back, along your calves and Achilles tendon,” Likely said. “This is really important for mobility. When combined with the previous exercises, they help maintain the integrity of the ankle and strengthen the musculature around the ankles.”
The short foot exercise works the intrinsic muscles on the soles of the feet, which is particularly helpful if you’re dealing with plantar fasciitis, but it’s also helpful for strengthening the bottoms of your feet.
To do this exercise, you may want to have someone nearby to help. “The idea of it is you’re focusing on the balls of your feet and trying to bring them toward your heel without activating your toes,” Likely said. “At first, it can be challenging, so it may help to have a partner there to push the balls of your feet toward your heel.”
After you get a feel for how to move the muscles on the soles of your feet, you may no longer need to hold down your toes, she noted. You can then perform the move four or five times on each foot. “This exercise really helps maintain the integrity of the arch of your foot,” she noted.
Prevention is key when you’re dealing with RA symptoms, Likely said. “Once you get behind something, you have to work harder than you would if you’re getting in front of it. So building those muscles and working to prevent any issues will help you gain strength and mobility for the future.”
She recommends daily exercises for prevention, but you can perform these moves up to three times a day if you’re working to build strength and if you aren’t in pain.
Talk to your rheumatologist about how often you should perform foot exercises and whether to continue doing them if you experience pain because each person’s situation is different. “If I wake up feeling my typical morning stiffness that usually lasts for about 30 minutes, I wait until that subsides before I do my exercises,” Likely said. “But if I’m in a flare and I need to reach out to my rheumatologist or take a secondary medication, then I might hold back on exercising until the strongest pain subsides,” she added.
You may also consider adding exercises for RA in your hands, recommended by Likely.
On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis, more than 191,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with rheumatoid arthritis.
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