Why Hands and Fingers Swell When You Walk

Simple tips to reduce and prevent swelling

Man walking outside

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

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Many people experience swollen fingers or hands when walking, running, or during other physical activity. It can be a confusing and frustrating symptom—even if it subsides shortly after your exercise session.

Research investigating the causes of hands swelling during moderate exercise is lacking. Still, some suspect that arm motion, metabolic changes, or heat-related issues may play a role.

However, there is substantial research on elite endurance athletes (such as marathon runners) and the changes that occur in their bodies during prolonged or intense exercise under adverse conditions. These athletes may experience puffiness or swelling caused by acute, dangerous conditions.

It's not likely that these conditions could cause swollen fingers when you take your dog for a walk or go for an hourlong hike. Evidence does not support that connection. However, it is possible to gain a few clues about the causes of hand and finger swelling from this research. Learn more about why swelling occurs and how you can prevent it.

Arm Motion and Swelling

Research suggests that about one in four people will experience swollen hands or fingers when walking. That 2011 study also indicated that women are more than twice as likely to report hand swelling after exercise. But this limited study only investigated hand swelling while walking a dog.

This is the sole study conducted on post-ambulatory hand swelling, also called "big hand syndrome." The study authors noted that the issue has been "totally ignored by the scientific literature."

The study authors did not investigate the causes of hand swelling in their research but pointed to another study about arm motion during walking. It indicated that arm motion could force excess fluid into the hands through centrifugal force.

Unfortunately, a deep dive into that research, published in 2009, reveals no mention of centrifugal force, hand swelling, or any related terms. The study investigated the metabolic cost of different arm swing patterns during walking. It did not address swelling or fluid changes in hands or any other body part.

So, can centrifugal force from your arm swing play a role in your post-walk puffy fingers? Perhaps. Many walkers employ a full 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 can alleviate puffiness. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that simple forces of gravity can cause fluids to pool in your fingers.

But, you shouldn't assume that you need to adjust your arm swing. IA bilateral arm swing (the swing that most walkers employ) is not improper but rather a normal arm swing.

Metabolic Changes and Swelling

Authors of the 2011 study mention another potential cause of swollen hands during walking: exercise-altered metabolic rates. Walking and running increase your metabolic rate—even when your body mechanics are efficient.

Endurance exercise (like walking or running) increases blood flow 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 walking or running.

During exercise, your working muscles demand more oxygen, 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 and Swelling

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.

Fluid Imbalance

Research has shown that when you do dynamic exercise in a hot environment, skin blood flow and circulation are compromised and body temperature regulation suffers, even during light exercise. Vasodilation—or the opening of blood vessels—helps cool the body via perspiration.

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

Hyponatremia

Walking or running in the heat may also cause other complications. Hyponatremia (an electrolyte imbalance) may lead to puffiness and bloating. It can also cause lightheadedness, fatigue, headache, vomiting, agitation, coma, and even death in severe cases.

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

Hyponatremia develops when you ingest too many hypotonic fluids compared to sweat, urine, and other body fluid losses. Hypotonic fluids contain a higher concentration of salt and sugar than the human body.

Hyponatremia may occur when combined with other factors, such as sodium loss from sweat, reduced sodium intake, and the rapid absorption of fluids from the gastrointestinal tract. Hyponatremia is more likely to occur in women than in men.

Many studies investigating the condition evaluate ultra-endurance athletes, such as marathoners, long-distance cyclists, and ironman triathletes. These athletes often sweat excessively for hours 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 swollen hands when you walk or jog in moderate temperatures?

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

How to Prevent Finger and Hand Swelling

If swollen hands and fingers are causing you discomfort or concern, try these strategies to eliminate or reduce the problem.

Promote Better Blood Flow

Remove rings and loosen any wristbands before 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 tracker strap. If your band needs to be tight to detect 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 an extended period. You will likely 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 help you see whether you are drinking too much or too little. If you consume the right amount of fluids, your weight should remain the same. For endurance walks, use a calculator to estimate fluid needs.

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 treadmill fan if you have one.

Move Your Hands and Fingers

Promote healthy circulation in your hands when you walk by carrying a walking stick and switching it from hand to hand while you walk. This will increase the use of the muscles in your hands and arms, improving blood flow. Or, bring 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.

A Word From Verywell

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

If the puffiness becomes problematic or does not go away after exercise, speak to a healthcare provider to get personalized advice.

9 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.
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By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.