Best Cardio Workouts and Exercises for Bad Knees

When your knees hurt, it affects every part of your life. Chronic knee pain makes even the simplest movements, like walking up and down stairs or getting in and out of a car a challenge. And what about exercise?

If you're already in pain, the last thing you want to do is trigger more pain or make it worse with the wrong kind of exercise. Fear of more pain and injury is often what keeps pain sufferers from exercising, although some conditions will improve with different types of exercise.

And if your knee pain is complicated by being overweight, exercise is almost always recommended. Even losing a small amount of weight can take the pressure off the knees, giving your body some relief from the pain.

Knowing that, yet still having to deal with the pain, what exercises and workouts can you do that won't make things worse? There are actually plenty of options for exercisers with knee pain, but your first step is to figure out what's going on.

What's Causing Your Knee Pain?

Knee pain can be caused by any number of conditions like bursitis or arthritis, or it may be caused by a sprain, tear, or an overuse injury. Because there can be so many reasons for knee pain, it's important to see your doctor and get a specific diagnosis.

You know you need to see a doctor if your pain and/or swelling lasts for several days, the joint feels unstable, or it's been going on for so long that it's interfering with daily activities.

Your doctor may want you to take medication and/or physical therapy. It's also important to get clearance from your doctor or physical therapist for any kind of physical activity.

Find out exercises and movements to avoid as well as activities that are good for your joints and will help you heal.

You should also ask about pain during exercise, specifically if feeling some pain is normal or if you should stop the activity. Most experts recommend you avoid working through any pain, but your situation may be different.

Cardio Exercise for Knee Pain

Once you know what's going on with your knee and have clearance from your doctor, you can start exercising. Cardio exercise is a great place to start and one of the best choices for strengthening the lower body, getting your heart rate up, and losing weight.

If you have access to a gym, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to cardio.

Swimming

Swimming is one of the best choices if you have knee pain. The water keeps your body buoyant, taking the impact off the rest of your body while allowing you to get a great cardio workout and strengthen the muscles that support the knee.

The best moves are freestyle and the backstroke, but you can also try other drills and exercises.

  • Reverse Kicking - Wrap your arms around a kickboard, flip over onto your back and kick, bringing the knees high with each kick. It's almost like you're marching.
  • Walking - If it doesn't bother your knees, you can wear a flotation device and walk across the pool. The resistance will get your heart rate up, but there's no impact and you can strengthen your knees. You can walk forwards, backward and even sideways, giving you great variety while allowing you to strengthen all the muscles in the lower body.
  • Water Aerobics - Group exercise is fun and doing movements in the pool will give you a great cardio workout without any impact on the joints.

Upper Body Ergometer

An upper body ergometer is really just like a bicycle for your arms and many gyms and physical therapy clinics have them. You sit in front of it and cycle the pedals with your hands to get your heart rate up.

This puts no pressure on the knees, so this is a good choice if you have a severe injury or you're recovering from surgery.

Elliptical Trainer

Not all knee pain responds well to the elliptical trainer, but the fact that it's no impact yet weight-bearing makes this a good option to try. There's no impact on the joints but the movement allows you to strengthen the quads and hamstrings while getting a great cardio workout.

If it seems to aggravate your knee, either during or after the workout, skip this one and try a different activity.

You might start with no resistance and just a few minutes at a time to see how your body responds. It may feel fine when you're exercising, but flare up the following day.

Treadmill

The treadmill is also a good choice if walking is something you can do without pain. The moving belt provides a cushion that concrete sidewalks don't, allowing you to walk without striking such a hard surface.

The Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is another option to try because the movement works the quads and hamstrings, helping to build strong knees.

However, the movement is repetitive on the knees. This may help your knee pain or, for some, it may make it worse. Again, start easy and only do it for a few minutes to see how your body responds.

If all that bending hurts, this is one to skip.

Home Cardio Workout

If you don't belong to a gym or those options don't work, there are plenty of exercises you can do at home with just a few pieces of equipment. The workout below includes a variety of low impact cardio exercises designed to get your heart rate up without pounding on the knees and other joints.

Precautions

See your doctor before doing this or any other workout and skip any moves that cause pain or discomfort.

Equipment

A resistance band, a medicine ball (4-10 lbs) and an exercise ball.

How To

  • Warm up with light cardio, marching in place or around the house for at least 5 minutes, or use the first couple of exercises to warm up your muscles.
  • Once you're warmed up, stretch any tight muscles of the lower body; the hamstrings, quads and calves.
  • Do each exercise for 30-60 seconds, going from one move to the next with little or no rest in between.
  • Aim for working at a moderate intensity. If you want to add more intensity, go faster, use a bigger range of motion for the exercises, add impact, or use a heavier resistance.
  • Do one circuit for a short, 15-minute workout or repeat the circuit as many times as you like.
  • End with a cool down and be sure to stretch the lower body.

Step Touches

The workout starts with simple exercises that get progressively more intense as the workout goes on.

For your first move, start with step touches. Step out to the right taking the arms out to the sides. Bring the left foot in, touching the floor next to the right foot and immediately step to the left with the left leg.

Continue to step to the right and left, making the steps wider and the arms bigger to warm up the body.

Repeat for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Step touch all the way across the room and back.
  • Circle the arms overhead to add intensity.
  • Instead of step touches, stay on the right leg and step the left foot out and in for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Low Impact Jumping Jacks

Increase the intensity just a bit with low impact jumping jacks.

Take the right foot out to the right, pivoting slightly on the left foot so that your body is facing the left side of the room. At the same time, swing the right arm up.

Step back to start and pivot to the right, taking the left leg out and swinging the left arm up.

Continue alternating sides for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Add circle arms: Instead of taking one arm up at a time, take both arms up, circling them together like you're drawing a rainbow in the air.
  • Add impact: If it doesn't bother your knees, try a full jumping jack.
  • If pivoting bothers your knees, keep the body facing forward.

March With an Exercise Ball

Grab your exercise ball and we'll move on to more intense exercises.

Hold the ball in both hands straight up overhead. Bring the right knee up as you bring the ball down to the knee. Take the ball up, lower the right leg and do the move on the other leg.

Continue for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Keep the ball at chest level as you march if this is challenging for the upper body.
  • Speed up the exercise to add intensity.

Overhead Step Backs With an Exercise Ball

Still holding the ball, take it straight up overhead. Keep the ball there as you step back with the left foot. Step back in, ball still overhead, and step back with the right foot.

Continue, alternating sides for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Bring the ball up and down as you step back instead of holding it up the entire time.
  • Keep the ball at chest level to lower the intensity level.
  • Speed up the exercise for more intensity.

Around the World With an Exercise Ball

Holding your exercise ball in both hands, feet out and knees slightly bent, swing it out to the right. Now swing it overhead and circle over to the left.

Continue circling the ball all the way back to the middle, repeating for 30 seconds in one direction, 30 seconds in the other direction.

Variations:

  • Make the move as big as possible to add intensity.
  • To make it easier, hold the ball closer to the body as you circle the ball around.

Med Ball Knee Lifts

Knee Lifts with a Medicine Ball
Ben Goldstein

For some variety, it's great to add a new tool to the mix. Grab your medicine ball: Around 4 to 8 lbs is a good range to choose from.

Hold it in both hands and march like you did with the exercise ball. Start with the med ball straight up and bring the right knee up, touching it with the medicine ball.

Lower and repeat with the left knee, alternating sides for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Keep the ball at chest level as you march if this is challenging for the upper body.
  • Speed up the exercise to add intensity.

Straight Leg Kicks with a Med Ball

Medicine Ball Lunge with Toe Touches
Ben Goldstein

Keeping your medicine ball, we'll pick up the intensity with some long lever moves.

Take the med ball straight up as you step back with the right leg into a straight leg lunge. The front knee should be slightly bent. From this position, kick the right leg forward as you bring the med ball down towards the toes.

Repeat for 30 seconds and switch to the other side.

Variations:

  • If bending the front knee in the straight leg lunge bothers you, keep your leg straight.
  • Hold the ball at chest level for a lower intensity.
  • Bring the knee up instead of keeping the leg straight.

Band Side Knee and Kick

Put down the med ball and grab a resistance band. It can be any level of tension or, if you don't have one, you can just use a towel.

Fold the band in half and grab either end. Shift your weight to the left leg and take the arms straight up, pulling the hands away from each other to activate the upper body.

Lift the right knee up, squeezing the waist to bring the right knee up and out to the side while bringing the right elbow towards the knee. Lower the leg, straighten the torso and do the same thing, only keeping the right leg straight in a side leg lift.

Continue for 30 seconds, alternating a bent knee and straight leg and then switch sides.

Variations:

  • Do the move without a resistance band to reduce the intensity.
  • Add speed to the exercise to increase the intensity.

Knee Lifts With Punches

Begin this move by facing the right corner of the room. Step back with your right leg as you punch out with the right arm.

Now, pull the right elbow back and punch out with the left arm as you pull the right knee in. Continue with the punches and knee lifts on that side for 30 seconds and switch sides.

This move does require some coordination, so give yourself a little extra time to get the move down.

Variations:

  • Just punch in and out with the right arm if this move feels confusing at first.
  • Add speed or hold very light weights to increase the intensity.

Punch-Punch With a Knee Lift

To continue with the kickboxing theme, you'll add more punches and knee lifts.

For this one start with the feet wide and bring the right knee up, punching across the body with the left fist.

Lower the knee and now do the following sequence: Right punch, left punch, right punch. On the last punch, bring the left knee up. Think of it like punch-punch-punch with a knee. Continue for 60 seconds.

Variations:

  • Take out the knee lifts if this move is too confusing.
  • Increase the speed or hold very light weights to add intensity.

Sources:

Bosomworth NJ. Exercise and knee osteoarthritis: benefit or hazard? Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19752252. Published September 2009.

Ott B, Cosby NL, Grindstaff TL, Hart JM. Hip and knee muscle function following aerobic exercise in individuals with patellofemoral pain syndrome. Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21689607. Published August 2011.

Messier PDSP. Intensive Diet and Exercise and Knee Osteoarthritis. JAMA. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1741824. Published September 25, 2013.

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