If you have cold feet or pins and needles in your legs and feet when sitting, it could be a warning of poor circulation. So, don't just sit there: One of the most effective things you can do is get up and start moving.
But even while sitting, you can exercise to improve blood circulation. "Sitting for a prolonged period of time in one spot, especially if your legs are crossed, can compress the blood vessels supplying blood to the leg muscles and nerves," says John P. Higgins, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine and sports cardiology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, Texas. "This can lead to pins and needles feelings (or paresthesia), as well as weakness in the muscles of the legs."
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Why You Get Cold Feet While Sitting
The most common cause is peripheral arterial disease, Dr. Higgins says. "Peripheral arterial disease occurs when atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] caused by cholesterol and inflammation leads to plaque buildup in the arteries of the legs."
You could be at higher risk for peripheral arterial disease if you smoke, have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or are over age 60, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Uncrossing your legs and moving around a little usually helps," Dr. Higgins says.
Try Aerobic Exercise
The best exercise to improve circulation overall is cardio, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Aerobic exercise is exercise that makes your heart beat faster and gets your blood flowing. Examples include:
- Walking briskly
- Jogging outside or on a treadmill
- Running sports like tennis
To get the benefits, aim for about 30 minutes at least five times a week.
Try These Sitting Exercises
Many types of exercise require getting up and moving, but you can still exercise to improve circulation to your legs and feet while seated.
One of the big dangers of sitting too long, especially if you have peripheral artery disease, is a blood clot forming in your leg, called a deep vein thrombosis, according to the American Blood Clot Association. They recommend these tips and sitting exercises:
- Don't cross your legs, extend your legs out in front of you.
- Avoid sitting for more than four hours in one stretch.
- If you have room, lift one leg slowly toward your chest and slowly let it back down. Then do the same with the other leg.
- While sitting, rotate your ankles one way and
then the other.
- Do some foot pumps by raising your heels off the floor as high as you can. This will contract your calf muscles and force blood flow.
- Sit with your back straight and try marching in place.
You can repeat these exercises several times during every hour of sitting.
Try These Lifestyle Changes
Work with your doctor to control risk factors for poor circulation like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, according to the CDC.
And when you're relaxing, "put your feet up," Dr Higgins says. "Elevation helps with edema, swelling caused by a buildup of excess fluid, which usually occurs in the feet, ankles and legs."
In addition, he says to consider wearing compression garments. "These can increase blood flow, which helps improve poor circulation in the legs and feet."
- John P. Higgins, MD, MBA (Hons), MPHIL, FACC, FACP, FAHA, FACSM, FASNC, FSGC, professor of cardiovascular medicine, sports cardiology, UT Health, McGovern Medical School, Houston, Texas
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Peripheral Arterial Disease”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health”
- American Blood Clot Association: “DVT Prevention Exercises”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.