Losing some leg strength is a normal part of aging. Pinched nerves, not drinking enough water and medical conditions like diabetes contribute to loss of strength, spasms, poor flexibility, numbness and pain.
These leg problems affect quality of life.
“Poor balance and falls are a huge concern,” said Heather Nelson, a Marshfield Clinic Health System physical therapist. “Some people think they can’t do anything about poor balance, but you can improve your balance. You want to do everything you can to avoid falls.”
Weakness, numbness, pain and poor flexibility can affect your life in other ways. They may keep you awake at night, make activities like grocery shopping more difficult and stop you from attending social events.
Leg exercises to improve flexibility and strength
Taking steps to improve your leg function will improve your quality of life.
These five basic leg exercises and stretches are a good place to start. Hold onto a railing or another sturdy object during the exercises for support. Perform two sets of 10 strength exercises three times a week. Hold stretches for 30 seconds and perform twice a day.
If you are not currently exercising or have concerning health issues, Nelson recommends checking with your doctor prior to starting an exercise routine.
1. Aerobic exercise
Walking, stationary cycling and water aerobics are good low-impact options to improve blood flow and leg strength. Try to exercise for 30 minutes five days a week or work your way up to exercising that much. Wear comfortable shoes that fit well to avoid blisters.
2. Heel raises
Decreased calf strength is common in people who have decreased balance or issues with calf spasms. Stronger calves improve balance and help prevent falls. Heel raises are a good way to strengthen your calves. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and slowly raise your heels off the floor.
3. Calf stretch
Stretching after exercise is important to improve mobility and prevent cramps or spasms. Place both hands on a wall in front of you, extend one leg behind you, and bend your front leg. Press your heels to the floor until you feel a stretch in your back calf.
4. Hamstring stretch
Tight hamstrings and calves often go together. Stretch these muscles by placing one heel on a step in front of you and leaning forward until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh.
5. Tandem balance exercise
Stand with one foot in front of the other in a heel-to-toe position. Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching feet.
If you have significant weakness or numbness or cannot walk without an assistive device, Nelson recommends talking to your doctor before performing the exercises.
Physical therapy or community fall prevention programs provide a safe, supervised exercise setting.
“A physical therapist will customize an exercise program that is tolerable, useful and safe for you,” Nelson said. “Your therapist will look at your strength, flexibility and balance to create your program and make changes as you improve.”
More ways to increase leg function
Drinking 64 ounces of water is one of the most important things you can do in addition to stretching and strengthening to help your muscles work properly.
“Not drinking enough water can cause your muscles to feel tight and spasm,” Nelson said.
Applying heat can be helpful to loosen your muscles during a spasm.
If your balance, weakness, pain or numbness worsen, you experience slowly healing wounds or your legs feel cold compared to the rest of your body, see your doctor.