Ankle Mobility: Improve the Way You Move

By Cate Reade, MS, RD ~

Joints allow movement to happen. Imagine how far you would get walking down the street without ankles or knees. It would look like a lot Laurel & Hardy’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers!” If hips were out of the picture, we would look more like pogo sticks hopping up and down to get anywhere.

Thankfully, the body was intelligently designed and movement occurs with joints working as an integrated system in a very specific way. The kinetic chain is used to describe movement with joints acting as the links of the chain.

When a joint isn’t consistently mobilized through its full and natural range of motion, the body adapts in a very unfortunate way. The connective tissue and muscles that cross over joints get shorter, tighter and weaker. This can compress the joint, leading to pain, stiffness and a limited range of motion.

Joint range of motion, the distance and direction a joint can move, decreases with age (1) and inactivity. Inactivity is the major culprit making it vitally important to move joints through all directions and planes of motion on a daily basis, especially your ankles. When ankles are stiff and rigid, it negatively affects all the other joints that are stacked on top, from the knees and hips on up to the cervical spine (neck).

When a joint’s range of motion is limited, the body still makes movement happen by asking other joints and muscles to work in a way that’s contrary to the how they were designed. This leads to compensation and pain! The source of that knee pain may be coming from tight ankles; lower back pain from the loss of hip mobility (2). You get the picture.

Ankles are at the base of the kinetic chain making them the foundation of balance, posture and mobility (3, 4, 5). That’s a really important job because mobility is linked to our quality of life and level of independence. Losing mobility makes it harder to move safely so the world we engage in becomes smaller, we may restrict activities and can become socially isolated which is the worst behavior of all for good health and longevity.

Just like you want your house to be built on a strong foundation so the walls don’t crack and crumble, you want the base of your kinetic chain to be strong and flexible to move well. This way, with each step we take, ankles are able to best sense and respond to the dynamic and ever-changing environment from uneven and cracked sidewalks, to navigating curbs and obstacles on the ground to climbing up stairs.

Ankle mobility plays a starring role in proprioception, posture and balance (4, 5, 6). The ankles are the first joint to sense what’s going on and send those signals to the brain for processing and a muscular response. Proprioception is how we can generate smooth and coordinated movements to maintain or regain posture and the loss of balance as we move throughout the day.

Even rising from a chair or bending with good posture, (hinging at the hips, not hunching the lower back), relies on having mobile ankles that can dorsi-flex. Flexion means a limb is moving closer to the body while extension moves a limb further away. It’s common for people of any age to not be able to squat correctly because of poor ankle mobility. Quality movement starts at the ankles!

Ankles and feet are often an ignored part of an exercise program. When was the last time you did ankle exercises? See what I mean?!

If you have been ignoring your feet and ankles, here are some simple exercises you can add to your daily routine to reduce pain and stiffness and build ankle mobility. Seated exercise removes the fear and risk of falling, we can all do it and it’s effective. Over time, you will be moving faster, stronger and with greater agility and resilience to injury.

Start by sitting tall with good posture; keep your spine upright and in a neutral position with a curve in the lower back; shoulders are back and down; chest is lifted; chin is level with the ground; ears are over shoulders and both are in line with hips. Thighs are parallel to the floor or hips are slightly higher than the knees and feet are flat on the floor.

Now take a few deep breaths and simply start with 5 exercises, performing 10 repetitions of each:

  • Toe Lifts
    Lift your toes up and lower.
    Muscles strengthened: Dorsi-flexors to lift toes when walking.
  • Heel Lifts
    Lift heels up and lower.
    Muscles strengthened: Plantar flexors to help increase walking power.
    Also a great way to boost circulation! The calf muscles squeeze the veins to push blood to the upper body.
  • Toe Circles
    With heels on or lifted off the floor, make circles with your toes. Reverse directions.
    Muscles strengthened: Dorsi- and plantar flexors; invertors and evertors for greater ankle strength and flexibility.
  • Toe Fans
    Rotate toes outward (duck) and inward (pigeon).
    Muscles strengthened: Invertors and evertors for better ankle stability and mobility.
  • Alphabet Writing
    With heels on or lifted off the floor, write the alphabet with toes.
    Muscles strengthened: Dorsi- and plantar flexors; invertors and evertors for better balance.

Perform these exercises whenever you are sitting watching TV, at the computer or while waiting for an appointment. When you are ready for a greater challenge, add different exercises and some light elastic resistance bands or tubing. For additional exercises visit:
Perform simple ankle exercises daily and when you are walking, keep your toes pointing forward and “drive” with your dorsi-flexors, focusing on lifting those toes as high as you can. Over time you will enjoy a greater spring in your step, better balance, posture and performance for life!

1. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2010). Normal Joint Range of Motion Study
2. Cook, Gray: Functional Movement Systems, On Target Publications, Aptos, CA, 1st edition, 2010.
3. Williams, VJ., et al. (2016) Prediction of Dynamic Postural Stability During Single-Leg Jump Landings by Ankle and Knee Flexibility and Strength. J Sport Rehabil. Aug;25(3):266-72.
4. Christiansen, C. (2012). Geriatric Physical Therapy, Impaired Joint Mobility. Chapter 13, pp 248- 262, Mosby Elsevier.
5. Gaur, K & Davinder, A (2014). Comparision of ankle joint range of motion on balance score in healthy young and adult individuals. Journal of Exercise Science and Physiotherapy, Vol. 10, No. 1, Jun: 25-30.;dn=755930827114120;res=IELHEA
6. Spink, MJ., et al. (2011). Foot and Ankle Strength, Range of Motion, Posture, and Deformity Are Associated With Balance and Functional Ability in Older Adults. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, January Volume 92, Issue 1, Pages 68–75.

Cate Reade

Cate Reade

Cate Reade, MS, RD, is a Senior Fitness Expert and entrepreneur leading an epidemic of mobility. As CEO of Resistance Dynamics, she is delighted to be helping older adults regain strength, balance and confidence with her innovation, the MoveMor™ Mobility Trainer and exercise programming. Over 10 independent studies show better balance, increased leg strength, greater ankle flexibility, increased independence, improved continence and a reduced fall risk – in as little as 10 minutes a week. Cate loves instructing classes, collaborating with healthcare professionals and helping senior living communities thrive. Contact Cate at 303.515.7070; or visit