Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.
The ankles are an important line of defense against gravity. They keep us standing tall and in balance. But even those of us who are diligent about working out and staying fit neglect our ankles—which is a problem, since weak ankle joints can lead to issues in the legs, hips and back.
“Keeping the ankles flexible and strong allows you to maintain an active lifestyle,” says Kimberly Baptiste-Mbadiwe, PT, DPT, OCS, SFMA, a physical therapist at HSS.
Some loss of function in the feet and ankles is an inevitable toll of aging. Traumatic injuries, twists and sprains can also damage the 28 bones, 112 ligaments and 34 muscles that come together in the feet and ankles to stabilize the body.
“Ankles can get weak if any type of trauma happens—twisting them or breaking the bones around them, for example,” says Baptiste-Mbadiwe. “A lack of activity can also cause the muscles around the ankle to get weak. And all that can translate into how well you are able to move.”
What’s more, strong, healthy ankles can further assist in maintaining good balance. As we age, we lose our perception of where our body is in space, referred to as proprioception. Injuries also can disrupt proprioception due to pain, inflammation and other factors.
As with other groups of muscles, tendons and ligaments, the ankles can become stronger and more flexible with regular training. Here are four easy exercises you can perform that can help improve stability, motion and balance.
As a rule, strengthening exercises should be performed every other day, while stretching can be done daily. Give this regimen of exercises at least 6 to 8 weeks before you start to notice a real difference, and consider making them a regular part of your workout routine. “If it’s helping, it’s like a car—keep it tuned and functioning well. The more you maintain it, the better,” Baptiste-Mbadiwe says.
If you’ve experienced a traumatic injury or are having significant weakness (your foot drags when you walk, for example, or you feel numbness, tingling or other nerve-related symptoms in the area), you should seek medical attention.
You’ll need a sturdy workout strap, belt, towel or even a long bedsheet for this one.
Raises are a great way to strengthen the calves, which are among the most important muscle groups supporting the ankles. If you’re concerned about balance, use the back of a sturdy chair or a table for support.
If you do well with calf raises and feel they’re getting easier, try this twist on the exercise for further strengthening. Again, if you’re concerned about balance, use the back of a sturdy chair or a table for support.