In a nutshell: "We need a stable platform to come back to as our home base," says physical therapist Emily Tomlinson, DPT, co-founder of Threes Physiyoga, a fitness platform that combines yoga with physical therapy principles. "Our ankles play a really important role in taking our whole body and stacking it above that stable platform. They're also really important in our feedback about where our body is in the space. They help us adapt."
So for example, Dr. Tomlinson says, if we're on an uneven surface, the input our brains get through our ankles helps us to keep our body upright. "If we miss a step, that information we get from our ankle joint helps us organize the rest of our body so that we don't fall," she says.
In addition, our ankles play an important part in everyday movements. "It has a role in our ability to adapt stepping off of a curb, but it also has a huge role in our ability to step up onto a curb, climb up and down the stairs, rise up from a chair or sit down in a chair," Dr. Tomlinson says. "It has a role in an efficient walking pattern. It has a role in an efficient running pattern. It even has a vital role in our ability to lift something up off the ground or squat to pick something up. So yes, we do rely upon our ankle joint for all of these activities that we do throughout the day ."
Because we can use our ankles so often without giving much thought to them, it's common for people to adopt everyday habits that compromise the integrity of the ankle joint and prevent it from moving optimally. These behaviors may not lead to injuries, per se, but they could compromise our movement patterns over time.
"If we lose the ability for the ankle joint to be adaptable and mobile and stable, then other joints in the body try to pick up the slack," Dr. Tomlinson says. "So we may end up with knee pain, foot pain or toe pain—or even hip pain or back pain. But if we can bring awareness to the way we move throughout the day, we can definitely help to support a more healthy, adaptable ankle joint."
Below, Dr. Tomlinson shares four everyday habits that hurt your ankles and the simple tweaks she says can help keep you maintain a solid home base.
1. Shifting weight unevenly
This is the person who's constantly leaning into one hip, standing more on one foot than the other. "You're increasing the load on that one side," Dr. Tomlinson says. "So you're putting more stress and strain on the joints, on the muscles, the tendons, ligaments of that ankle."
Dr. Tomlinson says it also changes the way we distribute force and load throughout the body. "It just gets all put on that one side or the majority of it put on that one side—that's a lot of wear and tear," she says, "and that impact goes up the entire lower limb and even into the hips trunk, rest of the body."
Her tweak: "Mindfully distribute the load evenly between both feet," she says. Whether you're brushing your teeth or making a cup of tea, take a moment to take stock: Are leaning to one side, or sharing the weight equally between both of your feet?
2. Putting more load on the outside of your feet
"I often see this in young women because they might be a little bit more flexible so they're seeking stability by hanging out on the pinky side of their feet," Dr. Tomlinson says. "And that puts more stress and strain on the ligaments that are most often sprained in the ankle. We're overstretching the musculature."
Dr. Tomlinson says this habit is typically paired with hyperextending the knee, which puts unnecessary pressure on that joint as well. And while she says most people do these two behaviors because they're seeking stability, both ultimately have the opposite effect.
Her tweak: "grounding through the big toe," Dr. Tomlinson says. This will balance out the load more evenly in the feet.
3. Toe gripping
"These are people who are constantly flexing the toes," Dr. Tomlinson says, "and again they're looking for stability, but what it's causing is a very rigid foot and ankle." Over time, she says toe gripping changes our ability to have an adaptable ankle—necessary for navigating uneven surfaces and everyday movements—and it disrupts those lines of communication that tell us where our body is in space.
Wearing flip flops encourages this bad habit, since we have to grip to keep the sandals on as we walk, Dr. Tomlinson says. "So we're overworking, we're overusing those toes, we're not sharing the load through the ankle."
Dr. Tomlinson's tweak: "The first one is becoming aware and releasing the toes, and then the second one is manual mobility: Using your hands or a massage ball to roll the foot out and bring more mobility through the toes, foot, and ankle."
4. Wearing high heels
Wearing a heel that's higher than an inch-and-a-half, according to Dr. Tomlinson, puts you in a very rigid foot and ankle position—and it's the most common position to sprain your ankle. "So we're already setting ourselves up for an unstable ankle position in high heels," she says. "Then we ask our foot to work harder to find stability."
That's not to say you can't ever wear heels. "My message certainly is not to never wear high heels or flip flops," Dr. Tomlinson says. "It's that you need to tend to the foot and ankle if you do wear them."
Her tweak: rolling out and stretching your feet and ankles pre- and post-wearing high heels. "It's restoring the mobility in your foot and then also stretching those larger muscles in the calf," she says. You can do this manually or with a massage ball, foam roller, or percussion massager. "Your body's had to work harder to keep you safe and stable," Dr. Tomlinson says. So offering it some extra TLC seems only fair.
Making these small adjustments to your daily behaviors can help your avoid ankle injuries, but if you really want extra credit, you'll want to incorporate foot and ankle exercises into your fitness routine so you ensure you have what Dr. Tomlinson calls a robust movement diet. "We wanna move in different planes," she says. "We wanna weight shift differently; we wanna rotate so that we create that adaptable, mobile, and stable ankle joint." That way, you'll have all your bases covered.
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