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Active Range of Motion Exercises

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What are active range of motion exercises?

Active range of motion exercises help improve joint function. Range of motion is how far you can move your joints in different directions. These exercises help you move each joint through its full range of motion. Movement can help keep your joints flexible, reduce pain, and improve balance and strength.

What do I need to know about active range of motion exercises?

  • Do the exercises your healthcare provider teaches you. Practice the exercises with your healthcare provider before you try them by yourself. Exercise every day, or as often as directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Do the exercises in the same order every time. Go from head to toe, to help you remember the series of moves. Start with neck stretches. Then exercise other body parts in order, moving toward your feet. Do each group of exercises on one side, and then do the same exercises on the other side.
  • Move slowly, gently, and smoothly. Avoid fast or jerky motions.
  • Stop if you feel pain. It is normal to feel some discomfort at first, but you should not feel pain. Regular exercise will help decrease the discomfort over time.

Neck exercises:

Starting position: You may sit or stand. Face forward. Your shoulders should be straight and relaxed.

Starting Position
  • Head tilts, forward and back: Gently bow your head and try to touch your chin to your chest. Raise your chin back to the starting position. Tilt your head back as far as possible so you are looking up at the ceiling. Return your head to the starting position.
    Head Tilts
  • Head tilts, side to side: Tilt your head to the side, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Do not raise your shoulder to your ear. Keep your shoulder still. Return your head to the starting position.
    Head Tilts Side to Side
  • Head turns: Turn your head to look over your shoulder. Tilt your chin down and try to touch it to your shoulder. Do not raise your shoulder to your chin. Face forward again.
    Head Turns

Shoulder and elbow exercises:

Starting position: Stand or sit. Hold your arm straight down at your side. Face palms in toward your body. It is best to use a chair without arms if you are in a sitting position.

  • Shoulder movement, up and down: Raise your arm forward and then up over your head. Try to raise it so that your inner arm touches your ear. Bring your arm back down to your side. Bring it back as far as possible behind your body. Return your arm to the starting position.
    Shoulder Movement Up and Down
  • Shoulder movement, side to side: Raise your arm to the side and then up over your head as far as possible. Return your arm to your side. Bring your arm across the front of your body and reach for the opposite shoulder. Return your arm to the starting position.
    Shoulder Movement Side to Side
  • Shoulder rotation: Raise both shoulders up toward your ears, as if you were trying to shrug. Lower them to the starting position, and relax your shoulders. Pull your shoulders back. Then relax them again. Roll your shoulders in a smooth circle. Then roll your shoulders in a smooth circle in the other direction.
    Shoulder Rotation
  • Elbow bends: With your palm facing forward, bend your elbow. Try to touch your shoulder with your fingertips. Return your arm to the starting position.
    Elbow Bends

Arm and wrist exercises:

Starting position: Sit down. Bend your elbow and rest your forearm on a flat surface, such as a table or your lap. Make sure your wrist hangs loosely over the side.

  • Wrist bends: Bend your hand back toward your wrist so that your fingers point toward the ceiling. Then bend your hand down so that your fingers point toward the floor.
    Wrist Bends
  • Wrist rotation: Move your hand from side to side. Then roll your hand in circles in one direction. Roll your hand in circles in the other direction.
    Wrist Rotation
  • Palm up, palm down: Stay in the same position, but tuck your bent elbow against your side. Face your palm down. Turn your palm so that it faces up toward the ceiling. Then turn your palm so it faces down.
    Palm Up Palm Down

Hand and finger exercises:

Starting position: Sit or stand. Place your hand out in front of you.

  • Finger bends: Make a tight fist. Then open and relax your hand.
    Finger Bends
  • Finger spreads: Open your hand and stretch the fingers as far apart as possible. Bring your fingers together again.
    Finger Spreads
  • Finger-to-thumb touches: One at a time, touch each fingertip to the pad of your thumb.
    Finger to Thumb Touches
  • Thumb-to-palm stretches: Move your thumb and rest it across your palm. Move it out to the side again.
    Thumb to Palm Stretches

Hip and knee exercises:

Starting position: If you have had a hip injury or surgery, only do the hip exercises directed by your healthcare provider. Lie flat on the bed with your legs flat and straight.

  • Hip and knee bends: Point your toes. Slowly bend your knee up as close to your chest as possible. Straighten your leg and return it to a flat position on the bed.
    Hip and Knee Bends
  • Leg lifts: Raise your leg so that your foot is 6 to 12 inches (15 to 31 centimeters) off the bed. Hold it in the air for a few seconds. Return your leg to the bed.
    Leg Lifts
  • Leg movement, side to side: Flex your foot so your toes point up toward the ceiling. Move your leg out to the side as far as possible. Bring your leg back to the middle.
    Leg Movement Side to Side
  • Leg rotation, in and out: Put your leg flat on the bed. Roll your leg toward the middle so your big toe touches the bed. Then roll your leg out and try to make your smallest toe touch the bed.
    Leg Rotation In and Out
  • Knee rotation, in and out: Lie on your back on the bed. Bend your knee so the bottom of your foot is flat on the bed. Slide your heel towards your buttocks. Return your foot to the starting position.
    Knee Rotation In and Out

Ankle and foot exercises:

Starting position: Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor.

  • Ankle bends: Keep your toes on the floor and raise your heel as high as you can. Lower your heel. Then keep your heel on the floor and raise your toes as high as you can.
  • Ankle rotation: Raise your foot slightly off the floor. Roll your ankle in circles. Then roll your ankle in circles in the other direction.
    Ankle Rotation
  • Toe bends: Curl your toes down toward the sole (bottom) of your foot. Straighten them. Curl them up toward the ceiling. Then straighten them again.
  • Toe spreads: Spread your toes apart. Bring them together again.

When should I call my doctor or physical therapist?

  • You feel pain when you do active range of motion exercises.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition, care, or exercise program.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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