The Best & Worst Aerobic Exercises for Bad Knees

Next to bad backs, bad knees are the most often complained about injury and are usually cited as a reason not to exercise. But, in many cases, exercise can actually help your knees.

Swimming is a great option for those with joint pain. (Image: zeremski/iStock/GettyImages)

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), recommends range of motion, strength and aerobic exercise regularly to treat your bad knees. Having said this, not all exercises are created equal and to avoid injury, should be done with proper form.

What Causes Bad Knees?

The tibia (shin), fibula (lower leg bone), femur (thigh) and patella (kneecap) — supported by muscles, tendons and ligaments — all make up the knee. When you have "bad knees'" your range of motion is compromised; your knees feel weak and unable to carry your weight or the demands of certain exercises; and they hurt.

More often than not, the reason your knees hurt is because the surrounding muscles such as your quads, hamstrings and calf muscles that support your knees, are weak. Appropriate exercises to strengthen these muscles help reduce knee pain and sometimes eliminate it altogether.

When the culprit is not an overuse injury or weak supporting muscles, the cause of sore knees could also be osteoarthritis, a degenerative inflammatory condition affecting the bones and joint, says physiotherapist, Vanessa Govender.

Worst Exercises for Bad Knees

The worst cardio exercises for those who have knee problems are thought to be high-impact exercises that place the most stress on the joints. These include running, jogging and high-impact aerobics. Running is not usually the cause of knee pain — except where there is obesity, previous injury or a predisposed risk of joint arthropathies (joint disease) involved, explains Govender.

Going against the grain, a modest, recent study published in a 2016 issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology confirmed that running for 30 minutes a day actually helped decrease inflammation in the joints of runners' knees. This all to say that everything in moderation — check with your doctor to see what exercises are really best for your situation.

"The knee is designed to absorb, and bear load placed on our body as well as allow a large degree of movement," says Govender. "However, the knee can be easily injured by incorrect movements and poor form during exercise." Govender suggests if your knees are sore, it's best to stop all weight-bearing exercises completely to avoid further damage.

Opt for gentler forms of cardio until the knee is rehabilitated. Other aerobic exercises to be avoided are skipping, trampoline exercises, kick boxing and high-impact aereobic exercises.

The main culprits for knee injuries, says Govender, are skiing and trampoline bouncing as the quick changes in direction and form, combined with impact, can cause injury.

Best Exercises for Bad Knees

"Whether you have sore joints from daily overuse, age or from an injury, the thought of aerobics can make you feel weak in the knees — literally," says Ashley Blake, founder of Ashley Blake Fitness in Philadelphia.

"When creating your fitness routine, stick with knee-friendly exercises like rowing, swimming and the elliptical. These help keep the muscles strong without the added stress of high-impact exercises."

Govender concurs and adds that cycling and water aerobics are also preferable options. She stresses the importance of consulting a doctor before you begin a new exercise program — especially if you've had previous injuries.

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