It’s not your imagination — the joints that connect your feet to the rest of you get stiffer as you get older. Here’s what to do about it.
You’re not agile like you once were. It’s not so much an admittance of aging as an acknowledgment of the fact that we all physically peak ridiculously early — in our twenties, if not before — and that creaks, aches, pains, and inflexibility will knock on the door early and often. But if you know it’s coming, you can prepare for it. So let’s face the facts and start from the bottom, with ankle mobility. This crucial movement is going to decline if you don’t do something about it. So, let’s hop to.
As weirdly specific as it sounds, loss of ankle mobility is a legitimate thing that has a ton of ramifications. And if you played a lot of sports when you were younger, it’s only going to be compounded. “Ankle sprains are the most common sports injury,” says Constantine Demetracopoulos, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “As time passes from those injuries, you start to develop ankle stiffness, whether from scarring in ligaments that make the ankle feel tighter or early arthritic changes in your ankle.”
In a nutshell, the loss of movement you’re experiencing is not the ankle itself, which is made from cartilage and bone, but the ligaments and lining of the ankle joint which scar, stiffen, and begin to restrict movement.
An Ankle Mobility Action Plan
So what to do about it? It’s probably too late for this piece of advice, but it’s worth noting, says Demetracopoulos, that “the best thing you can do for your ankles is not lose flexibility in the first place.” Like most things in life, he says, maintaining your ankle mobility through regular exercise is a lot easier than regaining it after its gone.
But let’s assume that horse has left the barn. In that case, what’s your best strategy? “It’s both stretching and also maintaining functional strength,” says Demetracopoulos. “Doing squats and lunges is way better for you than getting on an elliptical for 30 minutes and tuning out.” Those functional movements, he explains, will improve your range of motion much better than passive aerobic exercise. You don’t need to do these ankle mobility exercises with heavy weights — or even any weights at all. “Using your body weight is perfectly fine,” he says.
As for stretching, the best time to do it is after you work out, not before, for max results. “There’s a lot of evidence that stretching before exercise may actually weaken the body, makes you more susceptible to injury,” says Demetracopoulos. “So wait until you’re done.” Also, because tight ankles are directly related to tight Achilles tendons and calves, you’ll want to stretch the whole chain, from your foot up through your hip.
But first, you’ll want to do some strengthening.
Ankle Mobility Exercises
Because ankle mobility has as much to do with strength as it does flexibility, there are a few key exercises you’ll want to do to help develop muscles around the joint. “Your two best moves are squats and reverse lunges,” says Demetracopoulos, who notes you can perform these ankle mobility exercises either using light dumbbells or your own body weight.
- Squats: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. Bend knees and sink your hips back as you squat down to the floor, keeping your back flat. Go as far as your ankles will allow (or until knees are over toes) then straighten. Do three sets of 10 reps. (Note: If this movement causes too much strain on your ankles, modify to a sit-and-stand exercise using a chair 10 times.)
- Reverse lunges: Stand with feet together. Take a large step backward with your right foot. Centering your weight between your forward and back foot, bend your right knee until it almost touches floor and bend your left knee until it is over your left toes. Hold this deep reverse lunge for two counts, then straighten. Do 10 on your left side, 10 on your right side; repeat three times. “This movement is great because not only are you working on flexibility in your ankle but also balance and proprioception,” says Dr. Demetracopoulos.
Ankle Mobility Stretches
For optimal results and maximum safety, before you exercise do a light warm up (think brisk walking), then do your workout. One you’ve finished, it’s time for gentle stretching and mobility moves that focus specifically on your ankles.
- Calf stretch: Stand facing a wall, feet about a foot from the base. Pressing your hands against the wall for support, flex your right foot and place it so that the heel is up against the base of the wall and toes point up in the air. Lean your weight forward onto your right leg and feel the stretch in your heel and calf. Hold 5 counts and release. Repeat on opposite side. Do five stretches per side.
- Achilles stretch: Stand facing a wall, about a foot away. Place hands on wall for support. Bend your left knee and step back with your right foot, keeping right leg straight. Feel the stretch in your right Achilles, bending your left knee more and leaning into the wall for a greater stretch. Switch sides. Do five stretches on each side.
- Outside ankle mobility move: Start sitting on the floor. Stretch your right leg out in front of you. Using either exercise bands or a towel, wrap the material around the arch of your foot, then hold both ends in your left hand. Keeping pressure on the material, turn your right foot out, so that it is pulling away/against the tension of the bands. Return to neutral, then press your foot to the outside again. Do 10 of these on your right side, then do 10 on your left. Repeat entire sequence three times.
- Inside ankle mobility move: Repeat the above exercise, but instead of hold the bands wrapped around your right foot with your left hand, this time you’ll hold them in your right hand, then turn your right foot in and away from your right hand to work on inner ankle mobility. Do 10 on your right side, 10 on your left, then repeat three times. “Technically, this is part of strengthening the ankle area, but it also helps with tightness,” says Demetracopoulos.
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