Swollen feet can be as much a mystery as they are a source of pain and discomfort. So what actually causes swollen feet? Technically, they're the result of fluid in the blood that escapes from the capillaries (the smallest type of blood vessels in your body) and build up in tissues, which is a condition known as peripheral edema. But what causes the peripheral edema can be a little bit harder to nail down. It can be the result of pregnancy or PMS (thanks to fluctuating hormones), injury, lymphedema (a blockage in your lymphatic system), infection, insufficient venous blood, obesity, blood clot or heart, liver, or kidney disease.
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They can also crop up as a side effect from medication or from long periods of standing, lengthy car or airplane rides or even sudden changes to warm weather. If this is the case, and the root cause of your swollen feet has more to do with lifestyle choices or environmental factors (as opposed to injury or chronic illness), there are exercises you can do to address your issues with circulation. If you do have an injury or illness, check with a doctor first before taking on any of these exercise. The exercises listed below are designed to the improve circulation in your feet by increasing range of motion in your feet, ankles and legs.
1. Point and Flex
This simple foot exercise helps improve your circulation by restoring mobility to your feet and ankles and can be performed while seated in a chair or on the floor. HOW TO DO IT: Start seated either on the floor with one leg extending out and away from your body or on a chair with one foot on the floor and the other foot elevated several inches off the floor. With your back straight and arms at your sides, point your toes forward and away from you as far as you can without straining or overstretching. Hold for five seconds before bending your foot back, pointing your toes up to the sky and your heel away from your body. Hold for five more seconds and repeat 10 times before switching feet.
Kick the simple point-and-flex exercise up a notch with some additional lateral and medial ankle movements. HOW TO DO IT: Sit in a chair with your back straight and feet flat on the floor. With your hands on your upper thighs, extend your right leg out until it's parallel with the floor. Alternatively, you can sit on the ground, legs extended in front of you, and then pull one bent knee in toward your chest, holding it stable with your arms. From this position, pretend your foot is a paintbrush and you're going to paint the alphabet with your toes. Start with the letter A and move all the way through the alphabet. Repeat with your other foot.
3. Toe Squeeze
This strengthening exercise will help boost your circulation by strengthening your toe muscles. The squeezing motion will also promote increased blood flood to your feet. HOW TO DO IT: While seated, place a cotton ball or any other flexible object in between each one of your toes. Once all toes are secure, squeeze your toes together, making sure your abdominal muscles are tight and your back is straight as you do so. Hold this squeezing position for five seconds before relaxing. Repeat this toe squeeze exercise 10 times before switching feet.
4. Resistance Band In and Outs
This swollen-foot exercise focuses on the ankle can be performed with a rubber therapy band or any other type of resistance band you can find. HOW TO DO IT: Use a thick rubber band to hold your feet together, touching your big toes to each other. Once it's secure, sit down on the floor with your legs extended out and arms at your sides (or holding the ends of the resistance band). Pull the tops of your feet away from each other, feeling the resistance of the rubber band as you do so. Hold this position for five seconds before relaxing. Repeat 10 times.
5. Foot Rocker
This is a more advanced version of the point and flex, but it has the added bonus of strengthening your ankles and calves. HOW TO DO IT: Start standing flat on your feet with good posture. Rock forward onto the balls of your feet, pausing for a beat, and then rocking back on your heels. Pause again and repeat for 10 complete rocks. Try not to rely too heavily on momentum to carry you back and forth but control your movements.
6. Tennis Ball Massage
While this isn't necessarily an exercise, per se, it will help increase circulation to your feet as you gently massage the soles of your feet with a tennis or lacrosse ball. HOW TO DO IT: Either sit on a chair with your feet on the floor or stand up straight. Place a tennis or lacrosse ball under the arch of your right foot. Roll the ball around under your foot, applying slight pressure (but not to the point of pain) as the ball goes from heel to toes and around again. Continue for 30 seconds on each side before switching.
Want more? Try these 12 Easy, Anytime Moves to Strengthen Your Feet and Ankles.
General Lifestyle Changes for Swollen Feet
While exercise can help reduce swelling in feet, proper diet and lifestyle changes will also help you reduce swelling.
- If you sit or stand for long periods of time throughout the day, make sure you get up and move around at least every two hours (if not every hour).
- Take frequent walks or do any other form of cardio exercise, which helps your heart circulate your blood more effectively. Low-impact exercises like yoga (shoulder stand and other inversions are great for circulation, as they reverse the regular blood flow pattern), swimming or light aerobics can also help.
- If you're overweight, lose weight through improved diet and regular exercise.
- Try support hose/compression socks (especially if you are on a long flight), as they prevent blood from pooling in any one area.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day and reduce your sodium/salt intake. Sodium causes your body to retain water and promote swelling, while water helps your body flush out toxins.
- Place a pillow under your fee to keep them elevated while you're sleeping. This promotes proper venous return to your heart.
- Devices like air pressure leg and foot massagers can help stimulate circulation. But your own two hands can often do the trick just as well. Give your feet, ankles and legs a five-minute massage every day to promote better blood flow.
- Soak your feet tonic or salt water soak to reduce swelling.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever had swollen feet or ankles? What did you do to help ease the pain and swelling? Did you doctor recommend any exercises or lifestyle changes? What exercises really seemed to help? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments section below!
Additional reporting from: Jason Aberdeene
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Foot, Leg and Ankle Swelling
- Foot Smart: Swollen Feet and Legs
- SportsInjuryClinic.net: Ankle Sprain Exercises
- FamilyDoctor.org: Ankle Sprains: Healing and Preventing Injury
- 5 Simple Exercises to Reduce Swelling of Feet in Pregnancy
- Easing Swollen Feet During Pregnancy
- Prevention: 5 Ways To Treat Swollen Feet
- Edema During Pregnancy (Swollen Ankles and Feet)
- Pregnancy Care Guide: Exercise to Reduce Swelling of Feet and Cramps