Exercises to Help With Ankle Arthritis

Improving Motion and Strength in Your Ankles

If you have ankle arthritis, pain and stiffness in your feet and ankles can limit your ability to walk, run, or enjoy your day-to-day activities. There are many treatments for ankle arthritis, ranging from conservative to more invasive injections or surgery.

Exercise for ankle arthritis is a great way to combat the pain and stiffness you may feel. But which exercises are best for ankle arthritis?

Physical therapists often say that "motion is lotion" when talking about arthritis. Ankle arthritis causes painful stiffness and loss of motion in your feet and ankles, and exercise should be your main tool in combating this. Ankle exercises for arthritis can help improve the way your ankles move, decrease pain, and improve your overall functional mobility.

It takes time to improve strength and motion through exercise, so consistency is key. Committing to performing daily exercises for your ankle arthritis is the best way to see the gains that can help with your pain and limited mobility.

Ankle Exercises for Arthritis

Starting any exercise program can be tough, and if you've never performed ankle exercises, you may need to start slow and build your strength and mobility over time.

Initially, your focus should be on moving slowly through the exercises and gaining range of motion. This often occurs in a non-weight-bearing position, like sitting or lying down. As your strength improves, you can progress to weight-bearing exercises like calf raises or toe raises.

When starting, you may benefit from performing five to eight repetitions of each exercise each day. Over the course of a few weeks, you can perform an extra set of each exercise, building up to two sets of 10 repetitions.

After about a month of daily exercise, you should be able to perform two sets of 15 repetitions of the ankle arthritis exercises. As a maintenance program, ankle exercises can be performed three to five times each week.

Be sure to check in with your physical therapist, physician, or healthcare provider before starting this or any other exercise program for your ankle arthritis.

Stop any exercise that causes lasting pain or discomfort. The exercises are designed to improve your strength, mobility, and function. While some exercise-induced discomfort is acceptable, lasting sharp pains are a sign that something needs the attention of a healthcare professional.

Ankle Pumps

Ankle pumps

Julia White / iStock / Getty Images

Ankle pumps help to improve the range of motion of your ankle joint.

To perform the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair and lift your foot slightly off the ground.
  2. Point your toes away from your ankle and hold for 5–10 seconds.
  3. Pull your toes toward your ankle and hold for another 5–10 seconds.

When pointing your toes away, you should feel a slight pull in the front of your ankle and lower leg; pulling your toes up should cause a tight feeling in your calf behind your lower leg.

Ankle Rotation

ankle rotation
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

To perform the exercise:

  1. Sitting in a chair, rest your affected ankle on your opposite knee.
  2. Hold just above the ankle joint with one hand, and hold the ball of your foot with the other.
  3. Gently rotate your ankle clockwise for several seconds, then reverse and rotate it counterclockwise for several seconds.

If one direction is more painful, try warming it up with the less painful direction before trying the painful direction again. 

You should feel a slight pulling sensation around your ankle joint when performing the rotations. In cases of severe ankle arthritis, crepitus, or a grinding sensation, may be felt. This should not be painful; if it is, stop the exercise.

Ankle Alphabet

Ankle alphabet

Julia White / iStock / Getty Images

To perform the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lift the affected foot slightly off the floor and trace the letters of the alphabet in the air using your toes (which should cause your ankle to move throughout the exercise).

If this exercise becomes easy, you can do the alphabet A to Z and then Z to A to help strengthen your ankle more. To challenge your ankle further, try changing up the letters and draw them in cursive writing.

Resisted Ankle Flexion

Resisted Strengthening Dorsiflexion
Ben Goldstein

To perform the exercise:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, and straighten one knee.
  2. Form a loop with a resistance band (you may be able to get one from your local physical therapist) and anchor it with a strong, sturdy object or a closed door. (You can also have someone hold a resistance band for you.)
  3. Wrap the loop around the top of the foot of your affected ankle.
  4. Slowly flex your ankle by bringing your toes up toward your ankle while keeping your knee and leg straight. This strengthens a muscle of your lower leg called the tibialis anterior.
  5. Hold this position for a few seconds before slowly returning your ankle to its starting position.

During this exercise, you should feel tightness in the front of your shin. Be sure to move with slow, steady motions while pulling up and lowering your ankle down.

Resisted Ankle Eversion

Non-Weight Bearing Eversion
Ben Goldstein

Eversion is to rotate the foot at the ankle away from the centerline of the body. Performing this with a resistance band adds more challenge.

To perform this exercise:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. Hold the loose ends of a resistance band in your hand.
  3. Support your lower leg on a rolled-up towel so your heel is off the floor.
  4. Put the foot of your affected ankle into the loop of the resistance band, and press your other foot against the resistance band. (The band should now form an L from your affected foot over to the other foot, then back to your hands holding the loose ends.)
  5. Using the outside edge of the foot in the loop, press outward away from your other foot. Be sure to keep your knee pointing at the ceiling while exercising by twisting at your ankle instead of twisting your leg.

You should feel tightness in the peroneal muscles on the outer part of your lower leg while performing this exercise. As always, move with slow and steady motions during the ankle eversion exercise.

Resisted Ankle Inversion

Inversion is to rotate the foot at the ankle toward the centerline of the body.

To perform this exercise:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. Hold the loose ends of a resistance band in your hand and place the foot of your affected ankle into the loop of the resistance band.
  3. Cross your other foot over so that the resistance band goes around your affected foot then behind the ball of your other foot.
  4. Using the inside of your affected foot, press your foot against the resistance band so that it moves away from your other foot. Try to keep the rest of your leg straight so that the movement comes from your ankle.
  5. Hold this position for several seconds, then return it to the starting position.

This exercise strengthens the tibialis posterior muscle, which is responsible for supporting your inner ankle and the arch of your foot.

Calf Raises

Calf raises

 Getty Images 

To perform the exercise:

  1. Hold the back of a sturdy chair and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Rise up onto your toes, lifting your heels.
  3. Hold this position for 5 seconds before lowering down slowly and returning your whole foot to the floor.

Be sure to move with slow and controlled motions. You should feel tightness in your calf muscles behind your lower legs.

Over the course of several weeks, this exercise may become easy. To increase the challenge, you can try performing the calf raise on one foot only.

Toe Raises

Exercise to help strengthen muscles in front of lower legs.
Photo © Terence Vanderheiden, D.P.M.

To perform the exercise:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold on to the back of a chair for balance.
  2. Lift your toes off the ground, keeping your heels on the floor.
  3. Hold this position for 5 seconds before returning your toes to the ground.

You should move slowly, and you likely will feel tightness in the front of your lower leg muscles. Performing this exercise on one leg increases the challenge.

A Word From Verywell

If you have ankle arthritis, the pain and stiffness may limit your ability to walk normally. Exercises to improve the strength and mobility of your ankles may be helpful. Performing exercises for ankle arthritis several times a week can improve the way your ankles move and feel. That way, you can remain active and enjoy your normal work and recreational activities.

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  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Arthritis of the foot and ankle. Updated December 2019.