How and Why to Exercise If You Have Foot or Ankle Arthritis

What’s the most frustrating thing about exercise? The more you need it, the more difficult it becomes.

We’re not just talking about weight loss here, or even maintaining general fitness or endurance. Everybody knows that being active is an important part of achieving those goals, of course—and getting started is often the hardest part of the journey. But these are not the only examples that fit the pattern.

Enter arthritis.


Those who suffer from chronic joint pain and stiffness in their feet and ankles understand how much arthritis can limit their mobility—and by extension, their lifestyle. Basic tasks and hobbies can become fraught with pain, or even the risk of injury.

Naturally, most people scale back on their activities a lot when they develop arthritis—it’s just too painful to do anything else. But in the long run, this is only going to make the problem worse. And the lack of exercise may lead to other problems, including weight gain and increased risk of disease.

In fact, regular exercise is extremely important if you have arthritis—and not only for all the normal health reasons that exercise is important. It can also help you with your arthritis itself, too.

More than that—exercise is widely considered to be the top non-drug-related pain-relief strategy for many types of arthritis, including the most common (osteoarthritis, or “wear and tear” arthritis).

Why Is Exercise So Important If You Have Arthritis?

We’ve covered it a little bit already, but we’ll spell it out with more specifics on the details.

It can reduce your joint pain and stiffness.

There’s a misconception out there that exercising will simply re-aggravate and grind down your arthritic joints, making the pain worse. However, as long as you’re exercising safely, the opposite is true.

When you don’t exercise, the muscles supporting your arthritic joints weaken, and the joint itself stiffens. Because the surrounding tissues aren’t strong enough to stabilize and protect the joint, it ends up taking more stress and abuse from daily use and activities.

But when you do take time to exercise regularly, this increases muscle strength, tendon and ligament strength, and even bone strength. Your joints get the support and shock absorption they need, so they don’t take as much wear and tear. Over time, this helps relieve aches, pains, and stiffness.

It can increase your mobility and joint movement.

Poor range of motion in arthritic joints can greatly slow your pace and limit your ability to perform specific activities safely or quickly. However, appropriate stretching and range of motion exercises can help you regain greater range of motion in the joints—or at the very least preserve and protect the level of mobility you have so that it doesn’t get worse.

It can improve your balance.

Balance Exercises

One common consequence of foot and ankle arthritis—especially among older adults—is that it increases your fall risk. Poor strength and range of motion are definitely a factor here. Exercise improves your stability and balance, leaving you less likely to take a tumble, hurt yourself, and experience a significant setback.

It reduces your risk of physiological illness and disease.

More activity and exercise means greater overall fitness and wellbeing. Not only will it help you lose weight, manage blood pressure and cholesterol, etc., but it can significantly reduce your short, medium, and long-term risk for developing conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even some cancers.

For the same reasons, exercise can delay or prevent the eventual need to surgically repair, resurface, or replace an arthritic joint.

It can make you feel better—physically and mentally.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, the physical benefits of exercise are obvious: more energy, more vitality, fewer aches and pains throughout the day. But the mental and emotional benefits can be even more massive. Exercise is known to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mental sharpness, promote good moods, and even help you sleep better.

Of course, sometimes the simple joy of being able to do a favorite task without pain for the first time in months (or years) can be the most meaningful for your long-term happiness and quality of life.

How to Exercise with Foot and Ankle Arthritis

We’ll start with a caveat.

In this blog, we’ll give a basic overview of what you can likely expect from your exercise plan for arthritis. However, if you do have arthritis, you should never begin a new exercise regimen without consulting us (or your regular physician) first.

While exercising with arthritis is extremely important, it’s also critical that you protect joints that are at risk and minimize your risk of an injury. Since every case is unique and different, you should always seek out an individual evaluation from an expert first.

That said, your exercise plan will probably call for at least 150 minutes per week (that’s two and a half hours) of a moderate-intensity workouts, and will likely include:

Low-impact cardio.

Low-Impact Cardio

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is a key component in improving physical fitness, weight loss (when performed consistently), managing long-term disease risk, and improving mental health. It makes your heart and lungs more efficient.

However, if your bones or joints have been weakened by arthritis, high-impact cardio (distance running, for example) may be prohibitively dangerous. These exercises already run a higher-than-average risk of causing overuse injuries in healthy individuals.

As a result, low-impact aerobic exercise is a foundational component in most exercise plans, especially those with foot or ankle arthritis. Some examples of good exercises include brisk walking, going for a swim, water aerobics, or cycling.

Higher-impact cardio (maybe).

While high-impact cardio (for example, running or basketball) does carry a higher risk of injury, it also does a much better job stimulating new bone growth and bone strength. Some higher-impact cardio may be recommended based on your physical condition and lifestyle goals.

Stretching and range of motion.

Gentle stretches that put your joints through their full range of motion (or at least as full as you can presently achieve) are important. In addition to relieving stiffness, they can help you gradually improve flexibility, which in turn improves your mobility and the variety of tasks you can safely and painlessly perform.


Again, increasing strength in your bones, muscles, and supporting connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) protect arthritis joints from damage. A greater percentage of the impact stresses are absorbed and dampened before they reach the worn-out joint.

Give Us a Call Before You Begin Your Exercise Plan

It’s so important, we’ll repeat it again—make sure you check in with a physician before beginning your new exercise plan. We can help you pick out specific exercises and give you advice on how to perform them safely and effectively.

And of course, exercise may be just one component of a comprehensive treatment plan for arthritis. Should you need any additional medications, orthotics, physical therapy, or even surgery, we are here to step in and ensure you get the best possible care for your lifestyle goals.

To schedule an appointment with Associates in Podiatry, please call your local office today:

  • Princeton: (609) 924-8333
  • Roselle Park: (908) 687-5757