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How to Cycle With Knee Arthritis

author image Lori Newell
I hold a Master's degree in exercise physiology/health promotion. I am a certified fitness specialist through the American College of Spots Medicine and an IYT certified yoga teacher. I have over 25 years experience teaching classes to both general public and those with chronic illness. The above allows me to write directly to the reader based on personal experiences.
How to Cycle With Knee Arthritis
An older woman and man are riding their bicycles. Photo Credit monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Arthritis in the knee can cause pain and stiffness and it may seem best to avoid exercise. However, the right level and kind of exercise can actually help improve symptoms. Bicycling is often a good option because it is non weight bearing and can help to strengthen the muscles of the legs.

Before beginning a cycle program for knee arthritis, it is important to know what kind of arthritis is affecting the knee. The two most common forms are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and each one has special considerations.

Find The Right Bike and Use It Correctly

Step 1

Go to a bike shop where a sales associate can find the right fit and bike based on individual needs. The Arthritis Foundation recommends test driving several types of bikes to find one that feels comfortable. Bikes come with different types of seats, handle bar designs and tire sizes.

For some with arthritis, the best choice is a recumbent bike. These are bikes where the legs and feet are out in front of the hips versus being underneath the hips. This position can take pressure off of painful knees and they are easier to get on and off than an upright bike. They do take some practice to get used to, but in the long run recumbent bikes may provide a more comfortable ride.

Step 2

Set the bike up correctly. Having the seat height in the wrong position can do more harm than good. The seat height should be adjusted so that when sitting on the bike, the knee joint should be almost straight when the pedal is at the bottom position, states REI.

The knee joint should never lock while pedaling and the joint should not be too bent at the bottom position. Both of these situations will place too much strain on the knee and can cause injury. If the seat height is set correctly, while pedaling, the knee joint should move through it's full range of motion.

The seat should be parallel to the ground and not tipped forward or back. The handlebars should be high enough that the body can stay mostly upright. While riding, take note of any knee, hip, back, wrist or shoulder pain, as these are indications that the bike is not set up correctly.

Step 3

Start off slowly and stay at a pain free level. The University of Washington claims that bicycling is a good option for those with knee arthritis as long as certain precautions are followed. This means not going too hard, too fast. Pedaling speed should not exceed 50 to 60 revolutions per minute.

The first five minutes should be considered a warm up period and performed without any tension or resistance. If bicycling outside, this would mean going slowly on flat ground. The goal is to slowly work up to riding for 20 to 30 minutes at least three times per week.

Step 4

Be consistent. The best way to manage arthritis of the knee is to exercise consistently. If cycling is the preferred method, then aim for a moderate level of exertion that will not cause an exacerbation of symptoms.

The Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center suggests breaking the 20 to 30 minutes up into shorter bouts throughout the day, to keep the joints moving and prevent stiffness. If that is too much to start with, do something. A small amount of exercise is better than none at all.

Starting with just a five or ten minute session can help the body to get stronger. Then more time can be added on slowly as the knee is ready. However, it is important to avoid cycling on a sporadic basis as the body does not get a chance to become accustomed to the exercise. Ten minutes three times a week is better than 20 minutes once a week.

Step 5

Rest during flares and supplement with other activities. If the knee is affected by rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to put off cycling and other activities during flare ups. A doctor or physical therapist can advise how to handle these periods.

To fully manage knee arthritis, it is best to combine cycling with a solid strength training and stretching program. Stronger and more flexible muscles will help keep the knee joint safe from injury. Cycling is a repetitive activity, so it is best to not overdo it and to combine it with other forms of exercise. The Arthritis Foundation states that walking and water exercise are good options on alternate days.

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