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Staying active when you have sore knees

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Good management of knee pain is vital if you want to still achieve your health and fitness goals. Exercise physiologist Andrew Cate outlines the three types of activity that can keep you on the move and perhaps even provide some relief from knee pain.

Understanding knee pain

The knee is a complicated joint with many components, including four bones (femur, tibia, fibula, and the patella), meniscal cartilage, bursa (a fluid sack), various ligaments, muscles and tendons. 

Knee pain is a common problem affecting people of all ages and fitness levels, and can be a result of injury, overuse, excess weight, or arthritis. 

By strengthening and stretching the muscles and ligaments around the knee, and choosing your cardiovascular activities wisely, you can increase stability and manage the pain while maintaining your fitness levels.

Strength training activities and knee pain

Keeping the muscles around the knee joint strong will help to stabilise and support the joint. The following exercises target the muscles around the knee. 

Ball squeezes

Squeeze an inflatable ball between your knees, which strengthens your inner thigh muscles without any movement through the knee joint.

Calf raises

Strengthens the lower leg but can be performed with very little, if any, movement through the knee.

Fit ball rolls ins

To target your hamstrings, lie on your back with your feet on top of a stability ball. Squeeze your glutes and abs and lift your bottom off the floor. Pull heels toward glutes, rolling the ball in, then push the ball back out with control. 

Wall sits

An exercise that strengthens your thighs without any movement through the actual knee. Adjust the height of your wall sit to minimise any pain.

Stretching exercises and knee pain

Stretching helps to keep the muscles around your knee joint supple, and are a good way to improve recovery after being active.

The main muscles to target are the quadriceps (front of the thighs), the hamstrings (back of the thighs) and the calves (back of your lower leg). Hold the stretch for 20 – 40 seconds, and ease into each stretch gently. Avoid sudden or bouncing movements.

Cardiovascular activities and knee pain

The best types of activities to participate in to help maintain and boost your cardiovascular fitness while suffering knee pain will depend on the severity of your condition.

Below are four levels of activity that you could alternate with and juggle depending on the level of pain.

1. No use of the knee at all
This is limited to a few upper body only activities such as paddling in a kayak, grinding exercise machines, swimming with a floatation device between your legs, or lifting light weights rapidly (to elevate your heart rate).

2. Weight supported activities
These activities use a seat or water to help support your weight, reducing the load on your knee, including cycling, rowing, swimming and aqua aerobics.

3. Moderate weight bearing activities
These activities still involve standing or walking, but could still help to boost your fitness without placing major stress on the knee joint.

Examples include punching a boxing bag, elliptical exercise machines, table tennis and walking. Nordic walking is also a good choice, where the poles increase the use of your arms and take a little weight off the lower body.

4. High impact activities
These place a lot of stress on the knee joint and should be restricted or eliminated, and include running and sporting activities.

Tips to manage knee pain while exercising

  • Perform a warm up of the muscles and ligaments around the knee before your chosen activity, focusing on low impact movements such as cycling or walking
  • Wear supportive shoes that provide good cushioning
  • Ease into any activity and listen to your body. Stop exercising if you feel sharp, intense pain
  • Cool down afterwards and stretch the muscles around the knee joint
  • Consult with a doctor, physiotherapist or knee specialist if you have any concerns