How to Improve Range of Motion

Our bodies have about 360 joints, each of which works in specific ways to help us move. Maintaining a healthy range of motion (ROM) in our joints keeps our bodies functioning and feeling great. Improving your range of motion:

  • Reduces aches and pains
  • Prevents future injuries
  • Increases flexibility

There are various reasons why you might experience reduced mobility and range of motion

  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Absence of stretching and stability exercises in your workout routine
  • Aging — natural muscle loss reduces joint support and range of motion
  • Medical operations such as surgery

Luckily, there are many simple exercises you can do to improve and maintain your range of motion. Whether you’re looking to improve your range of motion after being inactive for a while or recover range of motion after surgery, you can use these helpful exercises to improve your body’s mobility and prevent joint-related problems.

How to Improve Range of Motion

There are some simple exercises to improve your range of motion and long-term mobility. When incorporating these exercises into your workout routine:

  • Equally exercise each major area of your body.
  • Maintain consistency — regularly perform these exercises and keep your routine from week to week.
  • Add resistance as you improve with small weights and resistance bands.
  • Don’t overdo it — you should gently improve flexibility and mobility, not stretch yourself to your limit.
  • Consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.

Exercises to Improve Shoulder Range of Motion

Healthy shoulders should be able to:

  • Reach overhead
  • Reach down and behind you
  • Rotate externally and internally 

Exercises that help sustain this full range of motion include: 

  • Arm elevation: Holding a body bar above your head, lay on the floor and extend your arms behind your head toward the floor. Then raise the bar back over your head.
  • Towel grab: Rotate your arms behind your back — one elbow facing up and the other facing backward — while holding a towel taut along your spine. 
  • Shoulder rolls: Perform this exercise both forwards and backward.

Exercises to Improve Knee Range of Motion

Healthy knees should support you when you try to:

  • Stand up completely straight
  • Bend at the joint so that your foot touches your glutes — knee flexion

Many people lose knee mobility with age. Protect your knees with:

  • Heel slides: Lie on your back with straight legs. Bend your knee by pulling your heel (keeping feet flat) toward your butt. Then straighten your knee by sliding your heel back to the starting position.
  • Seated scoots: Sit in a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor. Scoot your body forward until you feel the front of your knees stretch. 

Exercises to Improve Foot/Ankle Range of Motion

Each foot has 33 joints, and their range of motion is closely tied to ankle mobility. Stable foot and ankle joints and muscles:

  • Support our entire bodies as we stand
  • Increase overall mobility
  • Reduce injury to other joints like our knees and hips 

Maintain these joints with: 

  • Ankle circles: Using a towel or foam roller under your ankle, move your ankle slowly in circles without moving your leg. 
  • Toe pick-ups: Place a pile of small objects on the floor (like pebbles or candies) and use your toes to move each item to a second pile. 
  • Leg balance: Balance on one foot for up to 60 seconds.  

Exercises to Improve Hip Range of Motion

Tight hips are common today thanks to sedentary lifestyles. ROM loss in our joints can lead to:

  • Lower back pain
  • Knee problems
  • Difficulty with daily activities like walking or getting in and out of your car

A few exercises to help overcome common hip issues include: 

  • Lying hip rotations: Lie on your back with both knees bent and cross one ankle over the opposite knee. Pull the knee under your ankle toward you until you feel your hip stretch.
  • Butterfly stretch: Sit up with your feet together, letting your knees fall toward the ground. Bring your heels in closer to your body without raising your knees to deepen the stretch.
  • Side-lying leg raises: Lie on your side and slowly raise your leg off the ground. Hold for three seconds before lowering it back down. 

Exercises to Improve Spine Range of Motion

Back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and the most common reason people miss work. In most cases, back pain isn’t caused by a serious condition and can be prevented by maintaining range of motion in your spine.

Protect your back health and reduce back pain with simple moves like:

  • Cat and cow: Start on your hands and knees. Slowly round your spine toward the ceiling while tucking your chin to your chest, and then reverse the move by arching your back and pushing your belly down. 
  • Supine twist: Lie on your back and pull one knee to your chest, keeping the other leg straight. Slowly move the raised knee over the straight leg. This motion should gently twist your back (keep your shoulders on the floor) as your knee passes your midline. 

Exercises to Improve Elbow Range of Motion

Elbows are prone to stiffness and joint pain. Over time, these conditions can limit normal use of your hand and make everyday activities more difficult. 

Maintain elbow mobility with exercises such as:

  • Elbow extensions: With your palms face up, extend your arms so that they’re straight, and then bend your elbows so your hands approach your shoulders. 
  • Resistance band rotation: Fix a resistance band to a door handle. Stand with your shoulder next to the door and keep your opposite elbow at your side as you hold the band and rotate that arm outward away from your waist. 

How Long Does it Take to Improve Range of motion?

These range of motion exercises can help to limit current aches and pains — one study found an immediate 94% reduction in joint-related pain using range of motion exercise therapy. 

But healthy range of motion is an important part of long-term wellness. You can reduce the risk of developing pain or chronic issues by adding range of motion exercises to your regular routine.

The American Council on Exercise recommends stretching each muscle group at least three times a week. At that rate, researchers say you can see improvements to your overall mobility in as little as three weeks

Though these exercises are gentle enough to do every day, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.

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