When your knees hurt, it’s hard to exercise. Knee pain that you experience during, or after, exercise can be enough to deter you from even trying. If you’re a woman over 55, you’re at a greater chance for developing osteoarthritis (OA), the wear and tear type of stress that occurs to joints with age. Women more than men experience OA, potentially due to wider hips and biomechanics that result in more potential stress on the knees. Knee strengthening exercises can help both prevent and alleviate chronic pain to some degree.
It’s important to first consider the cause of your knee pain. Then, explore the options for correcting the source of the problem without adding additional stress or pain to the aggravated knee. If you’ve had an acute injury, see your physician for a diagnosis before you begin knee exercises.
Unless you’ve had trauma directly to the knee, knee pain is often a symptom of another problem. Pain in one joint can be caused by problems with the joint above or below it. In the case of the knee, look to your ankle and your hip. Is there a history of injury or lack of range of motion with either joint? Both the ankle and the hip should be more mobile joints while the knee should be stable. If you’ve lost some mobility where you should have it, your body may beg, borrow, or steal it, and the stress begins to appear in another joint.
Try this simple ankle assessment on both ankles. Point and flex your foot, rotate it around as if you were drawing big circles with your toe, and try to turn the soles of your feet toward each other and away from each other. Do you have less range of motion in one ankle than the other? If so, does that happen to be the same side the knee pain occurs?
Do an informal self-assessment for your hip. Sit in a chair and cross one ankle over the opposite knee. Sit tall through the spine and hinge forward from the hip. Note how far you can go before you feel a significant stretch through the hip. Do the same on the other side. Is there any difference in mobility, and if so, is it on the same or opposite side as your knee pain? This is where it gets tricky. The body likes to be balanced. So, if your left hip lacks mobility, it could be either the right or left knee that has pain. In either case, if there is significant difference from one side to the other, begin a stretching program that restores mobility in the tight hip.
If you carry extra weight, every small issue is amplified. If you find that you’re feeling vulnerable due to pain or weak knees, try exercising in the water. Water walking that includes forward, backward, and side stepping can help strengthen knees and give you more confidence on land. Swimming is an excellent exercise if you’re trying to lose weight with existing knee pain.
Knee exercises have the dual goal of strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee while keeping the stress off the joint itself. Start with three non-weight bearing exercises that follow and move to the standing exercises, as long as you can do them pain-free. These can be performed by almost anyone to help prevent or improve knee pain.
Straight leg tightening
With one leg extended on the floor, couch, or bed, tighten the muscles of the thigh above the knee. Contract and release 15-20 times.
Straight Leg Lift
In the same starting position as above, contract the muscle. Then, lift the leg a few inches off the surface, lower the leg, and release the contraction. Repeat 15-20 times.
Place a small ball or a foam roller under one knee. Tighten the muscles in the top of the thigh to extend the leg. Pause briefly at the top and lower to start position. Release completely before doing the next repetition. Repeat 15-20 times.
Standing Single Leg Squat
Stand behind a chair or beside a wall for support. Standing on the leg you need to strengthen, bring your weight into the heel of that foot. Perform a shallow squat, not allowing your knee to go beyond your toes. Think about sitting back into a chair. You should feel muscles in your hip fatigue. Try to keep your hips level; avoid sinking into one side. Repeat 15-20 times.
Squat with a Ball
Place a large ball between you and the small of your back. Bring your feet away from the wall so you’re able to keep the weight on your heels at all times and light on your toes. Lower toward the floor a few inches, pause a few seconds, and press through the heels to come up. Repeat 15-20 times. As you gain strength, hold the low position for 10, 20, or up to 30 seconds. If there is pressure on your knees, move your feet further from the wall, and/or don’t lower quite so far down.
These knee exercises can be done daily to help strengthen the muscles around the joint. Do 15-20 of each exercise. Add a second set after a few days. Add a third set after a week. The standing exercises could be performed in a pool to reduce stress on the knee from body weight.
If any exercises cause pain while you’re performing them, discontinue immediately. You may find you can continue the non-weight bearing exercises. If you’ve had an injury, hear noise, or have chronic pain that doesn’t improve with exercise, see a doctor.
These exercises aren’t intended to diagnose, and they don’t replace advice of your medical physician.
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