Fact or Fiction? Five Common Leg Elevation Myths Debunked

There’s a lot of information out there concerning leg elevation — but not all of it is strictly true. It can be tough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to any health matter, so we’ve laid out five common claims about leg elevation and whether they’re true or false.

woman practicing pilates outside

You should elevate your legs after a run to remove lactic acid.

FALSE. Many workout fanatics swear by elevating their legs after a long run or hard weightlifting session, claiming that it helps drain the lactic acids from their legs and prevents it from building up and leading to more soreness. Your body does produce lactic acid whenever you engage in strenuous exercise, but it quickly turns into lactate. This substance does cause the burning sensation you feel in the middle of a hard workout, but your blood quickly recirculates lactate, taking it to the liver to be converted into glucose. Elevating your legs after a workout can help other fluids drain out of your extremities and reduce swelling, but by the time you’ve cooled down, the lactate will have already dispersed. As for what causes soreness after working out, it’s likely due to micro-tears in the muscles caused by all the exertion. When you want to speed up muscle recovery after exercise, elevating your legs is a great way to do so. Nutrients travel to the muscle cells from the capillary through the interstitial fluid, and waste products generated by the muscle cells travel back through the interstitial fluid to the capillary. With leg elevation, you reduce the amount of interstitial fluid, so this exchange is much more efficient and quick. This is why many professional athletes wear compression gear and elevate their legs after a strenuous workout or practice.

man walking in airport terminal

Leg elevation will help reduce swelling while traveling.

TRUE. Many people find that their legs swell during travel that involves long hours of sitting still on a plane or in a car. When you stay still for a long period, gravity pulls blood, lymph and other fluids into your lower legs and feet, making them swell. The effect can be compounded if you follow your day of travel with non-stop standing and walking, which can also cause swelling. Elevating your legs above the level of your heart for 15-20 minutes once you reach your hotel room or return home will encourage the fluids to gently drain out of your feet and lower legs and help curb the swelling.

Everyone should elevate their legs.

FALSE. Almost everyone should implement leg elevation into their daily routine. However, there are two medical conditions in which this might be contraindicated. Patients with severe congestive heart failure may experience shortness of breath while lying flat, which can make elevating the legs problematic. Additionally, patients with peripheral arterial disease sometimes feel pain in their feet when their legs are elevated because the arterial blood has to push against gravity to get through the legs. Patients who suffer from these conditions should not attempt to elevate their legs unless they have thoroughly discussed the matter with their doctor first. With these two exceptions, everyone else can benefit from daily leg elevation because of the chronic effects of gravity on our veins.

man looking at computer monitor

Both standing and sitting all day can be bad for circulation.

TRUE. Despite the new standing desk craze, both standing and sitting all day pose problems for your circulation. Whether you’re in a chair or on your feet, gravity is still pulling blood and other fluids down towards your feet, causing them to pool and resulting in swelling, which is why leg elevation provides relief either way. When it comes to your circulation, it’s much better to alternate standing and sitting, with intermittent walking breaks. Walking is important because it engages your muscles and gets your blood pumping in a way that standing and sitting do not. Even just taking a couple minutes to walk to the bathroom or the kitchen will help get your blood moving and partially counteract the effects of sitting or standing all day.

It doesn't matter what angle you elevate your legs.

FALSE. If you just casually throw your legs up against a wall or over the arm of your couch, you’re not getting the full benefits of leg elevation, and you may even be harming your circulation. Elevating your legs at the wrong angle — whether that’s keeping the legs completely straight or bending the joints too much — will put a lot of strain on your muscles and tendons and can cut off blood flow. As for the correct angles you should aim for, your thighs should be tilted at a less than a 45-degree angle, your knees should be bent at an angle between 20 and 30 degrees and the calves should be tilted between 15 and 20 degrees. This position will allow gravity to gently drain blood and fluid back towards your core without impeding it. If you have trouble achieving the right angles, a leg elevation pillow can help you get into the correct position without any effort at all on your part.

Leg elevation is a gentle, effective therapy for many people, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn’t be an informed consumer. Keep these five facts in mind whenever you elevate your legs or discuss the practice with your friends.

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