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Cankles --- Why Do Our Ankles Get So Thick As We Age?

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September 5, 2016

By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist



Cankles! Whether you have heard the slang or not, it just sounds ugly. It kind of makes you cringe upon pronouncing it.

Cankles is not an official medical term, but rather a slang portmanteau that combines “ankles” and “calves”. Cankles describes the condition in which your calves and ankles being roughly the same width; when, instead of the ankle tapering after the calf, it just keeps going straight down.

There are myriad root causes, and they don't always point to just one thing. Sometimes a person can have cankles and be in perfect health; it's simply how their genetics panned out.

In other cases, it can indicate some more toxic underlying health condition. According to Dr. Kathya Zinser, from Temple University's School of podiatric medicine, some reasons for cankles could be diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, and lymphedema.

Sometimes it can be as simple as being overweight, but often there are other factors at play, such as hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy or PMS, or a certain aspect of the diet, that make ankles swell up temporarily.

If you have cankles, it's worth exploring why. Read on to find some possible explanations, and learn how to get rid of them if they are already there at the end of your legs.

Genetics Can Cause Cankles










Sometimes you just get dealt a bad card, and the fat decides to accumulate there instead of say, your stomach or butt. Dr. Mehmet Oz, professor and vice chair of surgery at Columbia University, says that the fat cells in the ankles are responsible for the swelling between the calves and the ankles.

A surgery to fix the problem can cost $6000 USD, so trying a workout is definitely a better option. Unless it's an extreme case of cankles, it's always best to try the natural method first. Health professionals, including Jessica LeRoy, clinical director for the Center for the psychology of women in Los Angeles, agrees. She affirms, “Ankle liposuction is possible but it seems a little drastic.”

Most experts recommend exercises to lengthen and tone the calf muscles. Victoria Zimmer, yoga and pilates trainer at Steiner Leisure limited, suggests 20 repetitions of squats, lunges, and calf raises daily.

Fluid Retention and Diet Combine to Produce Cankles

Pay attention to what you are eating, and in what quantity. It often happens that what doesn't touch our metabolism at 20, might make a big difference at 30 or 40.

Our body begins to react more violently to what we are eating, and we puff up. If you find your cankles to be something new, it might just be your body saying, “Hey, I'm not gonna put up with your eating habits anymore!”

If you find yourself consuming lots of salt and sodium in general, and very little protein, your body might react by swelling.

Salt is often the culprit. The recommended amount, according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) is between 1500 and 2300 mg/day.

So, if you're chowing down on a bag of potato chips per day, that might just be all the salt your body allows. Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day to dilute any sodium you do consume. It's also best to avoid caffeine and alcohol if you already have a chronic problem with cankles.

Carbs are also something to watch out for, if you get puffy. Your body can store 4 parts of water/1 part of glycogen. So, definitely hydrate if you are packing in the extra carbs.

Hormones Can Cause Cankles

For the ladies, sometimes our whole bodies swell up around that time of the month, including the calves and ankles. If you find this happening only at that time, don't worry too much about it. It could also be a side effect of pregnancy.


Sometimes hormone imbalance will lead to this condition, a state of general swelling, that in extreme cases presents as a symmetrical distribution of fat between the hips and the ankles (the feet aren't included).

Lymphedema is also characterized by pain, tenderness, and sensitivity to pressure, as well as bruising easily.

Unfortunately, weight loss will have no effect on lymphedema.

Lymphendema almost exclusively affects women. According to a 2006 report from E. Foldi and M. Foldi from the Elsevier GMBH in Munich, Germany, lymphedema impacts 11% of the female population.

While with women, lymphedema is usually due to hormonal imbalance, with men the most common root cause of lymphedema is liver dysfunction.

Other Illnesses Can Cause Cankles

When organs start to fail, the body often reacts by puffing up.

Caroline Cederquist, M.D., lists kidney disease, liver failure, heart failure, and blood clots as some common reasons for fluid retention and swelling around the ankles.

Experts at the University of Washington orthopedics program say that it can also be a side effect of health problems associated with diabetes.

How Do You Know If Your Cankles Are Caused By a Health Condition?

Most of the time, your cankles won't be that big of a deal.

However, there is an easy test you can do, for a quick check. First, if the cankles appeared recently and over a short period of time, are getting worse than they were, are painful, are warmer or cooler than the other skin on your body, or have become red, it might be worth a look.

Push your finger gently into your cankle. Fat and normal fluids will bounce back, but if your finger leaves a dent or impression, it may be something more serious. In this case, definitely consult your doctor.

If it's not a health condition, don't worry

Remember that “cankles” in and of itself is not a word that represents a debilitating disease.

Cankles might make you feel insecure at times, but it is important not to pathologize it. Exercise physiologist Rich Weil, the director for the New York obesity weight loss program, confirms that it is neither a medical term or condition.

Although, as we mentioned, losing weight can help reduce cankles, stretching and strengthening is more effective in terms of aesthetics.

According to Weil, if you're overweight, you can't target any specific area for weight loss. “We've known for a long time that you can't spot reduce," he says. "Body fat is body fat and it doesn't matter if it's on your ankles, thighs, hips, or belly.”

Basically, it's best to be a little zen about it, if it doesn't come from something more serious.

You can always just accept your legs for how they are, wear wide pants to cover it up, or highlight another part of your body that you love. If it's causing psychological problems, it's key to see a doctor, therapist, or nutritionist to get extra support.

Natural Shifts

Regardless of the cause, there are some actions you can take that will do your cankles good. It's important to increase your activity levels and eat healthy.

In the case of fluid retention, it's key not to spend too much time sitting or lying down, as it exacerbates the problem.

A sedentary lifestyle also makes things worse, and continues the cycle of fluid retention when the inactive calf muscles prevent the return of blood to the heart, again leading to excess fluid.

Fashion Shifts

Sometimes you just want to fix things in the moment, because you don't like how you look. Capri pants are a definite no. Also flat shoes, platforms and wedges, will emphasize wide ankles.

The key is long pants and mid-height stiletto heels. Those will prop up your legs for your night out. You can always look fabulous, cankles or no.




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