Your knee is the largest joint in your body. After a lifetime of impact and wear, the majority of older people experience knee pain. It’s important to learn methods for managing knee health and strengthening the joint to make sure it remains strong and flexible.1 It’s a complex joint, but some simple knee-friendly cardio workouts can help you to care for your knees, encourage weight loss, and support your overall fitness. Of course, if you’re experiencing knee pain you should seek professional guidance. In the meantime, continue reading for a guide to possible reasons behind knee pain and some things you can try to help ease discomfort.
Knee Ache and Stiffness: What Could Be The Cause?
Eighteen million Americans seek medical help for knee discomfort every year.2This complex joint basically consists of two long bones (the femur above, and the tibia below) connected by:
- Tendons, which are strong chords of tissue connecting muscle and bone.
- Ligaments, elastic bands of tissue that connect one bone to another.
- Muscles which expand and contract to change the position of a joint. Your quadriceps on the front of the knee help it to straighten, while hamstring muscles behind the thighs help the knee to bend.3
It’s these connecting tissues that are the root of many knee problems. Here are the most common sources of knee ache:
Arthritis can affect the knee in two different ways. Osteoarthritis is the gradual and general wearing away of cartilage within the joint, while in rheumatoid arthritis, the connecting tissue is destroyed by an autoimmune reaction.4,5
Patellar tendonitis is inflammation of the knee joint due to the stress and impacts from activities such as running, jumping, and playing basketball. It presents as a dull pain which worsens with activity.6
Damage can occur in the form of a sprain, twist, or dislocation. A common issue is the accidental tearing of the meniscus, a pad of protective cartilage inside the knee.7 Another common type of injury is damage to one of the four knee ligaments; the best known is the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).8
These problems may all be worsened by:
- Forgetting to warm up before exercise; improper stretching
- Bad posture during physical activity.
- Further injury which compounds existing problems.9
Note: If you’re experiencing any kind of knee discomfort, see your doctor for an evaluation before beginning a fitness program.
Knee-Friendly Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss and Fitness
If controlling body weight is important for knee health, and strong knees allow for more physical exercise, then there’s a feedback loop between how you use your knees and how your knees respond. The best cardio exercises for weight loss are always:
- Regular (every day, or five days a week)
- Consistent (focused on the same muscle group)
- Tailored (suitable for your situation, age and health)
- Varied (i.e. cross-training, or High-Intensity Interval HIIT workout to add interest and promote enthusiasm)10
A period of knee pain isn’t the right time to take up a high-impact cardio activity such as tennis or to go on long runs. Aerobic exercises that are knee-friendly are low-impact. They include:
- Walking: steadily on level ground, until you feel strong enough for a hike.
- Cycling: steadily on even surfaces, taking regular breaks.
- Water aerobics: the water supports body weight and may help ease joint pressure.
- Swimming: an excellent aerobic activity that doesn’t pressurize joints. Be careful not to kick off abruptly from the pool’s sidewall, as this might damage your knee.
- Yoga: for flexibility, strength, and developing the all-important mind-body connection.11
How A Recumbent Exercise Bike Or Rowing Machine Workout Plan May Help With Knee Issues
Using a treadmill at the gym or at home can result in lots of knee pressure and impacts, and elliptical machines might not be ideal during periods of knee pain.12 So, it’s important to find good cardio alternatives which will raise your heart rate without causing damage. Cycling outdoors is a great cardio exercise, but changes in gradient and conditions might make this too challenging. A stationary bike can be a good alternative, as can a recumbent bike, which has a larger, bucket-style seat, and grab-handles which are easier to reach.13
You could also try a rowing machine. The repetitive exercise of rowing provides a great cardio workout challenge while placing demands on your legs and upper body (back, neck, and arms) but not your knees. Try not to bend your knees too much during the initial ‘catch’ phase of the rowing stroke.14
Strength Training To Protect And Support A Bad Knee
Active recovery from an injury emphasizes exercise to help protect your knee joint. Exercise may help by building the muscles which could lose mass and flexibility – whether from the time you spend off your feet or for some other reason. Your doctor might recommend muscle strengthening around the knees, pelvis, and core to provide a ‘scaffolding’ which may help prevent further muscle deterioration inside the knee.15,16 The focus should be on gradually strengthening the knee and its supporting structures.17
Once you’ve got your doctor’s approval, begin with some warm-up exercises such as gentle squats, curls, extensions, and raises which focus on your heels and calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Once you’re warmed up, steadily exercise your knees with clamshell raises, bridging (hip raises), hip abduction, and leg raises.18,19 Introduce resistance bands or hold onto a dumbbell to add an extra challenge.20
Reduce The Pressure: Knee Health And Obesity
If you’re experiencing knee ache, your doctor might recommend that you lose weight. Research has shown that every pound of body weight lost yields a fourfold reduction in knee compression (i.e. losing 12 lbs. means taking an enormous 48 lbs. of pressure off your knees).21
Multiply this effect for every step you take, every day of your life, and it’s easy to see that weight loss may play a major role in reducing knee stress.
When thinking about your diet, consider your fitness goals, and try to make healthy food choices such as:
- Leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and collard greens provide vitamin D, bone-supporting calcium, and vitamin C.22
- Whole grains, especially oatmeal, might help support a healthy weight.23
- Sustainably-sourced fish, especially salmon, provide omega-3 oils which can also help support healthy joints.24
- Fruit, especially citrus (for vitamin C) and antioxidant-rich berries, are a great dietary choice.25
Protect And Strengthen Your Knees To Help Support General Fitness
The sensation of being trapped by uncooperative and uncomfortable knees is a huge drag on an exercise routine. It’s best to stay aware of what’s going on inside those complex joints and to get advice if you have recurring pain. See your doctor. If they give you the green light, do gentle warm-ups and steady, tailored exercises that will strengthen the muscles around your knee and help keep these vital joints healthy.