Is Step Exercise Bad for the Knees?

Modern gym interior with equipment
Stair steppers provide a good cardio workout. (Image: poplasen/iStock/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 72 million Americans are obese. One of the best ways to prevent becoming part of this statistic is through exercising. One common way to get the recommended amount of exercise is through stair stepping motions, whether walking up flights of stairs, using a stair stepper or climber, or taking a step class. However, the knee joint exercise involved in each of these activities can aggravate existing conditions or create new problems for your knees.

Exercise and Knee Problems

Knee problems can make exercise difficult, especially when pain is involved. Several conditions can cause knee problems if you use a stepper exercise machine -- arthritis, gout, chondromalacia, plica syndrome, tendon Injuries, ligament injuries and meniscal Injuries. If you suffer from any one of these conditions, talk to your doctor before using a stair stepper or other piece of exercise equipment that relies specifically on the knee joint.

Stepper Action

Stair steppers create exercise by mimicking the same actions as walking up a flight of stairs. Each time you lift your leg up you work your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, adductors and hip flexors. The stepper especially works the quadriceps femoris muscle which is attached to the kneecap by a tendon, and the vastus intermedialis muscale at the base of the kneecap. These muscles are responsible for extending the leg at the knee and stabilizing the knee respectively.

The Problem

The problem with steppers in relation to the knees is that they subject the knee-joint to stress each time you go through the step-up motion. As your foot impacts the step, gravity and the weight of your body become centered on the joints of the body, especially the knees and ankles. If your knee is already affected by swelling, pain or general weakness, this can make using the stepper painful, or may even worsen the condition of the knee if it is overworked.

Alternatives to Steppers

Several other exercise machines and tools can help you achieve your exercise goals without placing excess stress on your knees. For example, elliptical trainers remove the impact you experience when stepping up by directing your body movement in a circular motion instead of up and down. Water aerobics are another option for those with knee problems, as the buoyancy of the water naturally helps lift your weight off the knee joint.

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