Why Hands and Fingers Swell When You Walk or Run

Simple tips to reduce and prevent the swelling

Running Shoes

FrancescoCorticchia / Getty Images

In This Article
Table of Contents

Many people experience swollen fingers or swollen hands when walking or running. It can be a confusing and frustrating symptom—even if it subsides shortly after the end of your exercise session.

Research investigating the causes of hand swelling during moderate exercise is lacking, but there has been some conjecture that arm motion, metabolic changes, or heat-related issues may play a role.

Why Swelling Occurs

There has been substantial research conducted on elite endurance athletes (such as marathon runners) and the changes that occur in their bodies during prolonged or intense exercise under adverse conditions. Some of these studies indicate that puffiness or swelling may occur—along with other potentially life-threatening symptoms.

But, it's a stretch to assume that these acute conditions are the cause of swollen fingers when you take your dog for a walk in the neighborhood or go for a hike on a sunny day.

Evidence does not support that connection. But it's possible to gain a few clues from these studies to understand why you experience finger swelling when you walk or run.

Arm Motion

A published research report has suggested that about one in four people will experience swollen hands or fingers while walking. That study also indicated that women are more than twice as likely to report hand swelling after exercise. But this one limited study only investigated hand swelling while walking a dog.

Published in 2011, this research is the sole study conducted on post-ambulatory hand swelling, also called "big hand syndrome." Study authors noted that the issue has been "totally ignored by the scientific literature."

Study authors did not investigate causes of hand swelling in their research but pointed to another study about arm motion during walking. They summarized their interpretation of that study:

"The one theory for hand swelling after ambulation that has been proposed was by Collins et al., who suggested that improper arm motion, forcing excess fluid into the hands by 'centrifugal force,' or alternatively, exercise-altered metabolic rates might be responsible."

Unfortunately, a deep dive into that research by Collins reveals that there is no mention of centrifugal force, hand swelling, or any related terms. The study by Collins investigated the metabolic cost of different arm swing patterns during walking and did not address swelling or fluid changes in hands or any other part of the body.

So, can centrifugal force from your arm swing play a role in your post-walk puffy fingers? Perhaps. Many walkers employ a robust arm swing and some of those people experience puffy fingers.

It's also not uncommon to notice that placing your hands in your pockets or elevating them for a few minutes starts to alleviate the puffiness. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that simple forces of gravity and perhaps centrifugal force can cause fluids to pool in your fingers.

But, you shouldn't assume that your arm swing should be adjusted. In fact, according to Collins' research, a bilateral arm swing (the swing that most walkers employ) is not improper, but rather a normal arm swing.

Metabolic Changes

Authors of the 2011 study mention another potential cause of swollen hands during walking: exercise-altered metabolic rates. Collins' research indicated that the normal (bilateral) arm swing pattern used in a typical human gait uses the least amount of energy.

However, he compared it to walking with the arms bound, walking with the arms completely still, and an "anti-normal" pattern where the right arm swings forward when the right leg steps forward and vice versa. You're not likely to use any of these arm swing patterns on your daily jog or walk.

But, walking and running do increase your metabolic rate—even when your body mechanics are efficient. Could normal changes to your metabolism during exercise lead to puffy fingers?

Heres What We Know

  • Endurance exercise (like walking or running) increases blood flow in order to meet the body's increased demands for oxygen. You'll notice that your heart beats faster and you start to breathe more deeply when you start walking or running.
  • During exercise, your working muscles demand more oxygen and so blood flow is directed away from the extremities (like fingers and toes) to the muscles that need it—such as your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • When blood flow is directed away from your hands and fingers, they get colder. As a result, the blood vessels in your hands may start to open wider, causing them to swell, especially if you are exercising in cold weather.

Heat

If a cooling effect has the potential to cause hand swelling, you might imagine that exercising in heat would cause the opposite effect. But that's not always the case.

There are a few evidence-based reasons that exercising in the heat may also cause your fingers to get puffy. However, not all of them may apply to your typical walking or running session.

Fluid Imbalance

Research has shown that when dynamic exercise is performed in a hot environment, skin blood flow and circulation is compromised, and regulation of body temperature will suffer, even during light exercise. Vasodilation—or the opening of blood vessels—occurs to cool the body by perspiration.

Depending on your fluid intake and your body's ability to cool itself, you may experience a fluid imbalance. According to medical experts, this can lead to edema (excess fluid in the skin and tissues).

Hyponatremia

Walking or running in the heat may also cause other complications. Studies have investigated a condition called hyponatremia, which may lead to symptoms including puffiness and bloating. In severe cases, it can also cause lightheadedness, fatigue, headache, vomiting, agitation, coma, and even death.

Exercise-associated hyponatremia is a condition in which the body develops a low blood sodium concentration during or immediately following physical activity. The condition is usually caused by overzealous fluid intake.

Some media reports have mentioned this condition as a potential cause of hand swelling during walking or running. While this may be possible, the evidence suggests that certain adverse (and possibly unlikely) conditions must exist in order for hyponatremia to occur.

It is true, however, that the majority of athletes who develop hyponatremia demonstrate an increase in total body water. And swelling is cited as a common side effect.

Hyponatremia develops when you ingest too many hypotonic fluids in excess of sweat, urine, and other body fluid losses. Hypotonic fluids are those that contain a higher concentration of salt and sugar than the human body (such as PowerAde). When combined with other factors, such as sweat sodium loss, reduced sodium intake, and the rapid absorption of fluids from the gastrointestinal tract, hyponatremia may occur. Hyponatremia is more likely to occur in women than in men.

Many studies investigating the condition evaluate ultra-endurance athletes (both elite and amateur), such as marathoners, long-distance cyclists, and ironman triathletes. These athletes often sweat excessively for hours at a time in high heat, may experience gastrointestinal changes, and may consume large amounts of water and sports drinks during long races.

Researchers have reported cases of hyponatremia during or after other activities such as walking or yoga, but far less often. So, is it possible that hyponatremia is causing your puffy hands when you walk or jog in moderate temperatures?

It's possible if your exercise session was very long, occurred in hot weather, and if you consumed excessive fluids. Your healthcare provider can provide a personalized diagnosis.

But, experts advise that to prevent the condition from occurring, you should drink according to thirst during and immediately following exercise in temperate climates with a duration of less than 17 hours.

Prevention

If swollen hands and fingers are causing you discomfort or concern, consider one of these tips to eliminate or reduce the problem.

Promote Better Blood Flow

Remove your rings and loosen any wristbands prior to a walk. If you have a lot of finger swelling, rings can restrict blood flow and become uncomfortably tight. Leave them safely at home. 

Also, loosen your wristwatch or fitness band strap. If your fitness band or smartwatch needs to be tight for detecting your heart rate, wear it higher on your wrist or forearm rather than at the narrowest part of your wrist.

Balance Your Water Intake

Drink according to thirst when you exercise. Carry fluids with you—especially if you exercise in high heat or for a long period of time. It's likely that you will need to consume fluids such as water or a sports drink after the first hour when walking and sweating.

You can also weigh yourself before, during, and after your walk to determine your sweat rate.

This method can provide guidance so you can see whether you are drinking too much or too little. Your weight should remain the same. For endurance walks, use a calculator to estimate your fluid needs.

Use Hand and Arm Muscles

Promote healthy circulation in your hands by using them when you walk:

  • Carry a walking stick and switch hands while you walk. This will increase the use of the muscles in your hands and arms that might assist in improving blood flow.
  • Carry a small object to grip lightly as you walk, such as a rubber ball, map, or flashlight.
  • Reach your arms overhead every few minutes. or bend your arms so your hands are lifted up instead of hanging down at your sides.
  • Stretch all of your fingers out for a few seconds and then make a fist. Repeat this several times.

Exercise in Cooler Weather

Swollen hands are more common in hotter weather, so choosing the coolest part of the day for a walk or run may help to reduce puffiness in your hands and fingers. If you exercise indoors, turn up the air conditioning when you are the treadmill.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that these solutions might not completely prevent swollen hands, as the condition is common for some walkers and runners. There are other conditions that cause hand swelling such as medications or certain health conditions.

If the puffiness becomes problematic or does not go away after exercise, speak to your healthcare provider about other causes of hand swelling to get the best-personalized advice.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ravaglia FF, Leite MG, Bracellos TF, Cliquet A Jr. Postambulatory hand swelling (big hand syndrome): Prevalence, demographics, and association with dog walkingISRN Rheumatol. 2011. doi:10.5402/2011/659695

  2. Collins SH, Adamczyk PG, Kuo AD. Dynamic arm swinging in human walking. Proc Biol Sci. 2009;276(1673):3679-88. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0664

  3. Moghetti P, Bacchi E, Brangani C, Donà S, Negri C. Metabolic effects of exercise. Front Horm Res. 2016;47:44-57. doi:10.1159/000445156

  4. Cheung SS. Responses of the hands and feet to cold exposureTemperature (Austin). 2015;2(1):105-120. doi:10.1080/23328940.2015.1008890

  5. González-Alonso J, Crandall CG, Johnson JM. The cardiovascular challenge of exercising in the heatJ Physiol. 2008;586(1):45–53. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.142158

  6. Fluid imbalance. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. 11/20/2017

  7. Hew-Butler T, Loi V, Pani A, Rosner MH. Exercise-associated hyponatremia: 2017 updateFront Med (Lausanne). 2017;4:21. doi:10.3389/fmed.2017.00021

  8. Nichols AW. Heat-related illness in sports and exerciseCurr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2014;7(4):355–365. doi:10.1007/s12178-014-9240-0

  9. Rowlands DS, Bonetti DL, Hopkins WG. Unilateral fluid absorption and effects on peak power after ingestion of commercially available hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic sports drinksInt J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011;21(6):480-491. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.21.6.480