I’m tired of looking for recipes online only to find them buried at the end of trillion-word essays, so I’m going to start you off with this exercise at the top.
Calf Elevators are similar to calf raises; the main difference is you work extra hard to keep the ankles from wobbling. (Ankles, like elevators, should be able to move the body straight up and down without traveling side to side or rotating as they do so.)
- Stand with feet forward, ankles pelvis-width apart.
- Slowly lift and lower the heels, keeping your ankle joints centered and moving straight up and down (don’t let them drop outward or inward, or twist). Don’t overly thrust the pelvis to help you get up and toes should be lift-able throughout the entire exercise (weight is on the front of the FOOT, not the toes).
- Want to level up? Start this move with your toes placed slightly uphill on a folded towel or book. This will give a greater range of motion over which your calf muscles have to move!
Now that you’ve moved a bit, are you ready to blow your mind a little bit? Consider this: Moving your ankles is one way to take care of your heart.
Your heart muscle moves constantly, contracting to pump and circulate blood throughout the body. Oxygenated blood flows away from the heart via the artery-parts of the cardiovascular system and deoxygenated blood moves back to the heart via the venous-parts of the cardiovascular system.
Blood moving away from the heart is under more pressure so it all flows forward, but the blood moving back toward the heart is not only under less pressure, it often has to move uphill to get to the heart. This means returning blood has the tendency to flow in the wrong direction.
Thankfully many veins, especially those in the arms and legs, have vein valves—flaps that shut behind the returning blood—keeping the blood moving in the right direction. You can think of venous blood like a salmon moving “uphill” through the limbs’ veins, and the valves as a “salmon ladder” the blood is using to climb.
Because I'm pressed for time, this below is going to have to double as both a diagram and as a homemade valentine for my husband. You're welcome, honey. This is what happens when you marry a nerd.
The valves are essential, but they're also passive. They're not really helping the blood move forward, they're just stopping it from moving backward. There is, however, an active way our body can assist venous return—a more powerful phenomenon that you may or may not be taking advantage of: the calf muscle pump.
Veins are often embedded within muscle. In short, when the calf muscles repeatedly contract—short, long, short, long—the tense-relax-tense-relax pumping action that surrounds the veins effectively propels the blood up the legs. Another way to say this is calves are like extra, tiny hearts stored at the bottom of your body, that work when you want them to. They are CALF HEARTS!!!— and they have an important role in the all-day action of your blood moving through your body. And to be clear, we’re talking here about the calves of your legs, not baby cows.
You can figure out your heart’s beats-per-minute by counting your pulse for sixty seconds, but how do you figure out how often your calf-hearts are assisting? You can measure calf-heart heartbeats in steps per day, or the number of times your ankle moves through its plantar-dorsiflexion range of motion. How many calf-heart heartbeats do you create in a day?
We know being sedentary is hard on the heart, but not always clear is just why being sedentary is hard on the heart. It’s no wonder because it’s complex! In this case, you can think of ankle action as an extension of the action of your heart muscle. Heart muscle action has a hard time reaching all the way down to the lower legs. Without your calf-hearts beating, blood becomes more resistant to circulation. Time spent not using your calf pumps is time the heart muscle has to go it alone, which it’s not well-equipped to do. THE HEART COMES WITH CALF-HEARTS FOR A REASON.
Maybe that’s why we give the heart its own holiday. It’s so lonely doing the work that should ideally be shared by many more parts. Happy Calf-Valentine’s Day!
Inverted legs vs. stepping legs
When vein valve flaps are under lots of pressure and are not supported well through calf muscle contraction, they break. We call the resulting situation varicose veins. One of the movements offered in this case is to lie on your back with your legs up a wall. As long as you’re in this inverted position, the blood can move back toward the heart with gravity’s assistance. But how much time can we really spend upside down? The human body has been an upright mover for some time, so how to make it easier on your cardiovascular system the bulk of the day? Get your calf muscle pumps going with regularity.
Other ways to get your calf-hearts pumping:
- Calf Stretch to increase the ankle’s range of motion and therefore their capacity for pumping action.
- Take two or three fifteen-minute walks each day and really focus on pushing off at the ankle.
- If you can’t walk, lie in bed and point-flex-point-flex your feet for a few minutes every hour. Add a rubber tube or a strap for more resistance.