How to Stay Fit with Bad Knees: Low-Impact, Joint-Friendly Exercises

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Knee pain and injuries can plague anyone. Everyone from recreational runners to professional tennis player Rafael Nadal have lodged complaints about this joint aching, creaking, or otherwise acting up. It is a frustrating injury to encounter because it can put you on the sidelines, making you incapable of performing your usual workout routine.

“Because they’re the main hinge between the ground and the rest of your body, the knees serve as your ‘wheels’ that get you around and allow you to be active,” University of Pennsylvania orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Nicholas DiNubile said to WebMD. “Life can really go downhill when you damage your knees.”

He continued: “It’s hard to find the right balance between mobility and stability; the knee needs to move back and forth, twist a little, and pivot too.” Since the knee is constantly practicing this balancing act, a wrong move or too strenuous an activity can cause strains, tears, swelling, or osteoarthritis. After this happens, a person can be left wondering “what now” when it comes to fitness.

But that person shouldn’t sit out just yet. Being overweight increases the risk of knee injury, both first-time time issues and any subsequent pains. With every pound of body weight exerting five pounds of force on the knees, excess weight is also excess force. Charles Bush-Joseph, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University, told the school’s medical center that people with knee injuries can still exercise and build strength, but they need to know their own limits. Staying active, Bush-Joseph explained, will help control weight and develop muscle, both important components when you want to protect your knees from further injuries.

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At the gym, for example, you might use the an elliptical or bicycle. Both of these are knee-friendly machines according to Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia, because they won’t stress your joints. “Recumbent stationary bikes are even better because you’re not sitting upright while exercising, which takes more weight off the knee joints,” Gaesser told Everyday Health.

When walking for exercise, you want to look for level surfaces, as well as one that will absorb some of the shock. Outside, pick grass or dirt and when inside, make use of the treadmill. “Treadmills have the most consistent surfaces and pretty good shock absorption,” Gaesser said to the publication. For treadmill users, DiNubile suggests longer workouts, with intervals of brisk walking or possibly running at intervals of three to five minutes.

Steven Stuchin, director of orthopedic surgery at the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City, also spoke with Everyday Health. Stutchin favors walking for people with bad knees because it is another low-impact activity that can assist with weight loss. He recommends starting slowly, about 20 minutes per day, and working your way up to a moderate level of activity.

“The best thing that you can possibly do for the health of your knees is to never injure them,” Joe Hart, an athletic trainer and assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Virginia, told Men’s Journal. Once you’ve injured your knees, Hart says that it is likely the old injury will continue to cause issues later in life.

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To minimize this, Hart advises people to avoid activities with sudden stops and that place a large amount of pressure on the knees. This includes sports like basketball, tennis, soccer, and football. Instead, take up cycling or swimming. Doing laps in the pool will help slow the progress of knee degeneration, and it is a great way to remain fit and healthy.

Water aerobics are another possible activity for a low-impact cardio workout. “Water’s buoyancy will take the load off your knees, allowing you to exercise with less pain and stress on your joints,” Stuchin said to Everyday Health. Swimmers are cautioned not to take up the breaststroke and butterfly, though, because they will place stress on the knees.

Stretching is another key to having healthy joints. ”Many people often say there is no aerobic value in stretching, so they see it as a waste of time,” Bush-Joseph said to Rush University’s medical center. “But a well-conditioned, flexible body is less likely to develop overuse problems in the knees.” Gaesser agreed, saying to Everyday Health, “Warm, flexible muscles aren’t injured as easily,” so it is important to take the time to stretch and ease into any workout to keep your knees healthy.

Although an active lifestyle can help minimize the pain from knee injuries and slow the progress of future problems, it is important to remember not to overdo it. Discuss any plans or activities with your doctor or physical therapist, especially if you are wondering what type of exercise is best for you. “You make gains in fitness when you work hard and then allow your body to recover,” Jordan Metzl of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City said to WebMD. “You can’t do a hard workout every day.”

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