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Exercises to reduce swollen ankles in the elderly

As we get older, our bodies change in different ways. One of the changes your loved one might notice is swelling of the ankles. Swollen ankles, also known as oedema, are very common in people aged over 65 – it affects over 240,000 people in the UK.1

There are many causes of elderly swollen ankles, including taking certain medications, not eating enough of the right food groups, conditions such as heart disease or kidney failure and lifestyle choices. Luckily, there are a variety of ways that your loved one can reduce swollen ankles, including doing different exercises. This  guide provides some great information to help you learn more about the types of exercises your loved one can do to help reduce elderly swollen ankles.

It’s important to note that your loved one should always consult a GP or other medical professional before performing any type of exercise. They will be able to advise you of your loved one so that you can avoid any further health implications.

carer with client who is doing an exercise for swollen ankles

Ankle swelling causes in the elderly

Swelling in the ankles is primarily caused by fluid building up in that area. Sometimes, it’s also caused by congestion of the veins or the lymphatic vessels. It can cause a lot of pain in your loved one’s ankles, which can impact the ability to move about comfortably or safely. The feet are the most common area of the body to swell because gravity means fluid is pushed down to the lower extremities.  

The cause of swollen ankles in the elderly can be down to a wide range of things, including:

Chronic Venous Insufficiency

One of the most common causes of ankle swelling, or oedema, in the elderly is due to having chronic venous insufficiency. This is a condition where the veins in your legs don’t allow sufficient blood flow back to the heart. As a result, blood flows back to the ankles and causes fluid to build up in that area. In fact, 70% of people who have swollen ankles have chronic venous insufficiency.2

Low Levels of Protein

If your loved one doesn’t consume enough protein in their diet, they may experience ankle swelling. Protein helps to retain fluid inside blood vessels. If protein levels fall below a certain level, fluid will begin to move outside of these vessels and build up around the ankles. It’s important to maintain a sufficient level of protein in the body to avoid this by eating protein rich foods such as meat and nuts.

Reduced Circulation

As people age, they can often experience a decreased elasticity in their blood vessels. As a result, this affects blood circulation because vessels can’t expand effectively. Poor circulation causes weaker blood flow because blood cannot be efficiently transported through the body. Because of this, fluid accumulates in certain areas, with the most common being feet and ankles due to gravity pushing the fluid down.

Heart Failure

The heart may become less efficient with age which often leads to heart failure in older adults. This usually happens as the heart becomes stiffer as we get older. When someone has heart failure, their heart cannot pump blood efficiently leading to poor circulation. As previously mentioned, when blood can’t be pumped around the body effectively, it begins to leak out of our blood vessels and cause a build up of fluid.

Disease

Different diseases, such as kidney or liver disease, can also be the cause of swollen ankles in the elderly. Decreased kidney function can result in increased sodium retention which causes ankles to swell as more fluid is kept in the body. Liver disease causes decreased blood flow through the liver, increasing pressure in the veins in the lower part of the body, leading to fluid building up in these areas.3

Medication

Certain medications that are commonly prescribed to the elderly may cause fluid retention as a side effect. Examples of these medications include calcium channel blockers, antidepressants, steroids and medications for diabetes or pain management.4 Because there is excess fluid in the body, this typically builds up in the lower extremities due to gravity, resulting in swollen ankles.

Inactivity

As many people get older, they often find themselves moving about and leaving their home less frequently. They may find they spend a lot of their time sitting or lying down. Because of this, blood may not circulate efficiently which results in fluid build up, especially in the extremities. If your loved one can, moving about more frequently can help to reduce this. Even going for a short stroll daily can help!

Exercises for swollen ankles

Although there are many ankle swelling causes in the elderly, a lot of the time performing different exercises to improve blood circulation in and around the ankles to move the fluid build up can help.

Before starting any exercises to reduce swollen ankles, it’s important that you or your loved one speak to a trained medical professional, such as a GP or a doctor. This is so that they can find the underlying cause and give approval to exercise that area. This is because performing exercises to reduce the build up of fluid could put extra stress on the body, which can be particularly damaging to someone with a preexisting health condition.

Here are some things to keep in mind when performing exercises to reduce swollen ankles:

  • Take deep breaths during and after exercising to maintain sufficient oxygen levels
  • Perform each exercise slowly and carefully to avoid injury
  • Don’t force exercises that cause any pain or discomfort

There are many simple exercises your loved one can do to help reduce elderly swollen ankles. Exercising can increase blood flow and help the body pump fluid from the ankles back into the centre of the body.5 Fortunately, most of these exercises don’t require any equipment, are low impact and can be done from the comfort of home, which makes them ideal for elderly people.

Here are some exercises your loved one can do to help reduce elderly swollen ankles:

1. Walking

Walking is one of the easiest and least strenuous exercises to reduce swollen ankles that your elderly loved one can do. By moving about more frequently, blood will pump through the vessels more effectively which improves overall circulation. As a result, fluid build up around the ankles will disperse and the amount of swelling will reduce.

This exercise can be done from the comfort of the home by walking in place or using a treadmill. Your loved one could also consider going for a stroll around a local park or popping to the shops if able, as it can be highly beneficial for both physical and mental wellbeing to go outside and get some fresh air.

2. Ankle pump

Ankle pumps are also another great exercise that many people do to reduce elderly swollen ankles. This involves flexing the ankle back and forth to increase blood flow in the specific region to encourage fluid to move about.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Lie down on your back on a comfortable surface and elevate your feet. A pillow could be used to do this

2. Only moving your feet, point your toes up towards your head

3. Next, point them as far down as they can go without straining

4. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 30 times, a few times a day

3. Glute squeezes

Initially, you may think that doing this exercise doesn’t seem effective in reducing swelling in the ankles. However, by promoting circulation within the entire leg, swelling in the ankles should lessen. This exercise is ideal for the elderly, especially if they have limited mobility, as it can be performed either sitting or lying down.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Start by squeezing the muscles in the buttocks, also known as your glutes, to tighten them

2. Hold this movement for a few seconds before releasing

3. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 10 times, a few times a day

4. Calf raises

Calf raises are another great exercise your loved one can try to help reduce swollen ankles. Not only can this help push fluid out of the ankles, but also the lower leg which many elderly people also experience swelling in.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold onto something steady to support you in doing this to maintain your balance

2. Gently rise onto your toes so that your heels are off the ground

3. Slowly lower yourself back down

4. It’s recommended to repeat this exercise 15 times, a few times a day

5. Foot rocker

This exercise is like the name suggests. You rock your feet back and forth to reduce swelling in that area by promoting blood flow. This exercise is performed standing up so if your loved one struggles with mobility, this exercise may not be ideal. To support balance, it’s important to hold on to a steady surface, such as a handrail or a banister.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Stand flat on your feet

2. Slowly lean forward on the balls of your feet and hold this for a few seconds

3. Rock back to lean on the heels of your feet and hold this for a few seconds

4. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 10 times, a few times a day

6. Ankle circles

Similar to ankle pumps, this exercise also specifically targets the ankles to help reduce swelling in that area. It’s also easier as it can be done either sitting or lying down. This makes it a great exercise for the elderly who may not be able to stand for an extended period of time easily.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Slightly lift one foot off the ground and rotate the ankle clockwise

2. We recommend completing 10 full circles before switching direction

3. Repeat this exercise on the other foot

4. It’s recommended to perform this exercise a few times a day for optimal results

7. Leg extensions

Not only are leg extensions a great exercise to reduce swelling in the ankles and legs, but they can also contribute to improved balance and mobility. This exercise cannot be performed sitting down so it’s important that your loved one holds on to something to provide support.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Spread your feet shoulder width apart whilst holding onto something to support you

2. Slowly extend one leg backwards so it’s off the floor and try to raise it. It’s important to keep your knee straight

3. Maintain this position for a few seconds before gently lowering the leg back to its resting position

4. Repeat this exercise on your other leg

5. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 10 times on each leg, a few times a day

8. Towel stretch

This is another exercise to reduce swollen ankles that can be done easily from the comfort of the home. All you need to do it is a towel! It’s important to use a towel that is long enough to avoid overstretching the leg muscles.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Sit upright on the floor with both legs extended in front of you

2. Place the towel underneath the ball of a foot and pull both ends of it towards you

3. When you feel a slight stretch in your leg, hold this position for a few seconds

4. Repeat this exercise on both legs

5. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 10 times on both legs, a few times a day

9. Squats

If your loved one is able, squats are also a beneficial exercise to help reduce ankle swelling. Remember, only perform this exercise if your loved one has good mobility to avoid injury. It’s important to keep your core tight and your back straight when squatting.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart

2. Bend your knees and gently lower yourself towards the floor. Stretch your arms out to improve balance

3. Once you’re as low as you can comfortably go, slowly lower yourself back up

4. It’s recommended to perform this exercise 10 times, a few times a day

10. Knee lifts

Exercising the whole leg not only reduces swelling in the ankles, but also the rest of your leg. As a result, this can improve the overall health of the lower extremities and improve blood circulation, which can take added pressure off the heart. Knee lifts are a great way to do this.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Lie down on your back on a comfortable surface

2. Slowly bring one knee up towards your chest. Stop if it feels uncomfortable

3. Gently return the leg to its resting position

4. It’s recommended to repeat this exercise on each leg multiple times

5. Whilst carrying out this exercise, ensure only one knee is lifted at a time to avoid straining your back or hips

Other ways to reduce elderly swollen ankles

Although performing different exercises is a great way to reduce elderly swollen ankles, there are many other things your loved one can also try. If your loved one is convalescing or need support with mobility and cannot exercise easily, here are some other methods to help reduce swollen ankles.

Salt is a mineral which is essential for normal bodily functions. However, consuming too much can cause ankles to swell as it increases water retention leading to a build up of fluid. If your loved one has swollen ankles, try encouraging them to reduce their salt intake by eating foods with no added salt.

A lot of the time, excess fluid building up in the ankles isn’t a result of consuming too much liquid, but too little. Not drinking enough water leads to dehydration which increases water retention, leading to swollen ankles. To avoid this, it’s important for your loved one to stay hydrated.

Excessive weight often leads to heart problems which can worsen your loved one’s blood circulation. This typically causes fluid to accumulate in the ankles, making them swell. Your loved one can safely lose weight by moving about more and by eating a balanced diet.

Keeping your loved one’s feet elevated can also help to reduce swollen ankles. This is because it encourages the fluid to drain away from the ankles quicker. It also decreases pressure in the lower extremities. Your loved one can elevate your feet by using a pillow in bed or a foot stool when sitting.

Magnesium is another mineral which is found in the blood which helps to maintain a steady water level in the body. If your loved one has a magnesium deficiency, they may experience swollen ankles due to the body retaining water. Eating magnesium rich foods such as nuts and fatty fish can help.

Compression socks are a type of tight fitting sock that’s designed to reduce swelling in the feet and ankles. They do this by gently squeezing the lower leg to improve blood flow. They come in a wide range of colours and sizes, so there’s bound to be a pair that’s suitable for your loved one.

How Alina Homecare can help

At Alina Homecare, our mission is to make life easier. We can provide the high quality and dedicated care that your loved one needs to live at home as independently as possible.

If your loved one has swollen ankles, a lot of the time the ability to move about comfortably can decrease. Our Mobility Care can help by providing the required support to move about within the home. Our experienced Carers can help with a whole range of things including supporting Personal Care routines, general housekeeping and can also prepare meals that incorporate certain foods, such as magnesium and protein rich foods, to reduce ankle swelling.

To learn more about how we can help your loved one at home, contact your local Alina Homecare Team today.

References

1. National Journal of Medicine, “Chronic oedema: a prevalent health care problem for UK health services“, Reviewed 23 November 2023

2. Better Health While Aging, “Leg Swelling in Aging: What to Know & What to Do“, Reviewed 23 November 2023

3. DeNeil Foot & Ankle Center, “Swollen Ankles in The Elderly“, Reviewed 23 November 2023

4. Drugs.com, “What medications cause swollen ankles and feet?“, Reviewed 23 November 2023

5. San Antonio Foot Specialist, “An Exercise to Reduce Ankle Swelling“, Reviewed 23 November 2023