For some of us older people, knee pain can discourage our desire to exercise.
In this article I share hopeful medical research & expert opinion that I dug up that says that in many cases, stiffness & pain in the knees can be reduced through certain low-impact exercises.
And that those with discomfort in their knees could even exercise pain-free.
So is there good cardio for bad knees?
For many people a number of low-impact activities will provide pain-free exercise.
Doing pool exercises, using certain cardio machines, and doing bodyweight resistance exercises are all possible options for getting a decent workout in despite the bad knees.
Medical experts say that knowing the cause of the knee pain will determine which exercises are beneficial and which ones should be avoided.
Knee pain caused by arthritis, aging, and general wear & tear can often be relieved by low-impact exercise that strengthens the main leg muscles surrounding the knee.
In the coming sections we’ll look at several exercise & workout options that someone with knee issues can do.
And I’ll also share relevant workout advice from medical & physical rehab authorities along the way.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Best cardio exercise for bad knees
Important note: Be sure your doctor has given you the thumbs up to try any of these exercises if your current knee pain is severe enough to require medical care.
Exercise can help people with bad knees
People suffering from arthritis or other pain-causing issues in the knees may not feel like working out, but science & medicine says that that is actually what’s needed in order to provide increased mobility and pain relief.
The American College of Sports Medicine puts it like this:
“As research has demonstrated time after time, exercise reduces arthritis pain and decreases the inflammation associated with arthritis”.
They go on to add that the proper treatment of arthritic knee pain should
“focus on strengthening muscles around the joint and increasing activity”.
Here are a few cardio exercise ideas for people with bad knees to consider trying.
Low-impact cardio machines for bad knees
Depending on the cause of the knee pain, one or more of the following types of exercise equipment could provide a satisfying & painless low-impact cardio workout.
An elliptical machine is low-impact
The Mayo Clinic says that with proper form, the elliptical can be a good cardio workout machine for someone with arthritic joint pain in their knees.
Your feet never leave the pedals on an elliptical machine, which eliminates the impact shock your knees experience if you are running or doing an aerobics class for example.
You can boost your workout level despite your bad knees by using the moving handles to engage the upper muscles in your shoulders, arms, & core.
Use a treadmill for walking
Walking is recommended by experts at Mayo as a good go-to exercise if you have stiffness or pain in your knees.
A benefit of a treadmill over a sidewalk is that the machine has shock absorbers built under the belt.
They can reduce the impact shock of your feet landing which may allow you to exercise for quite some time without any discomfort.
Mayo also says that walking is a good cardio choice for bad knees as long as the person is pain-free and doesn’t limp or have to change their stride in order to avoid discomfort.
Upright or recumbent exercise bikes are also recommended by orthopedic physicians.
They offer low-impact cardio exercise without much knee stress as long as the resistance on the bike is set to a minimal setting.
A recumbent bike may work better for some people since it has a reclined sitting angle that may further alleviate any downward pressure on the knee.
Mini steppers & vertical climbers
Like with a bike & elliptical machine, your feet never leave the pedals of either a stepper or climber machine.
Your muscles in your legs can get toned & stronger because they encounter resistance thanks to the hydraulic arms both types of exercise machine use.
All my “formal” workout cardio is done on the Xiser Mini-Stairmaster you see below, which is built like a tank and used by a few dozen professional football, hockey, baseball, basketball, & soccer teams, as well as the U.S. Navy Seals. (1)
Yours truly gettin’ his cardio in while giving his 61 year old knees a break…
A rowing machine may not work for everyone, since your knees will bear a little of the resistance during portions of the rowing stroke.
However, you are stationary and the movement is non-impact, so it’s definitely worth trying.
A rowing workout targets several muscle groups and is an ideal machine to provide you with a high-intensity yet low-impact cardio & muscle toning workout.
Water exercises for knees
If you have access to a pool, the water can provide a good environment where you can get a great low-impact cardio workout that’s very easy on the knees.
Swimming provides full-body muscle toning and cardio workout in one, and it puts zero stress on your knees.
For people with bad knees, it is one of the best forms of cardio to do.
Walking in the pool
Unfortunately for some people with severe arthritis in their knees or disc and nerve issues in their back, simple walking is not an exercise option.
But walking in the pool might be a good alternative for them, as the buoyancy of the water provides a couple of benefits to someone exercising in it.
First, your body exerts less downward gravity onto your knee joints with every step.
This makes it easier to get a good low-impact cardio workout because you can go for a longer period of time without experiencing pain.
Secondly, encountering the water’s resistance while walking through it provides a mild strength training component to your exercise.
This will help build muscle and burn more calories without adding any additional stress to your knees.
Low impact bodyweight exercises
No low-impact cardio machine? No pool?
You can still get a good lower & upper body workout at home with no equipment.
Bodyweight calisthenic exercises when done slowly and with proper form will not only provide you with a good workout: many of them target the leg muscles that surround your ailing knees.
If you remember from earlier, the American College of Sports Medicine recommended strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee joint.
This advice is echoed by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, who also go on to furnish an illustrated guide with several bodyweight exercises you can do at home or just about anywhere.
Here’s their link.
And medical authorities over at WebMD agree as well, and they too have prepared a slideshow (here) featuring eight exercises designed to strengthen your leg muscles and protect your knees.
Workout tips for doing cardio with bad knees
Medical experts recommend the following things to help keep your workout beneficial for you and pain-free.
*Start slowly – The Arthritis Foundation recommends starting slowly if your knees are arthritic and you’re new to exercise
*Low impact only – Avoid high impact exercises if you have knee pain
*If it hurts, stop – “No pain no gain” definitely doesn’t apply to someone trying to exercise with bad knees. “The best advice is to not engage in activities that make the pain worse”, says a physical rehabilitation doctor at Mayo.
Exercise with bad knees FAQ
Here are answers to a few of the common questions asked regarding exercising with bad knees.
Can you lift weights with bad knees?
Harvard Medical says lifting weights is easy on the knees, joining the choir of medical experts that advise people with bad knees to strengthen those surrounding leg muscles.
Is running bad for your knees?
Running is not bad for everyone’s knees.
That’s the general consensus I gathered from all of the medical authorities I tracked down.
For example in just this one article from Live Science, I found five orthopedic physicians with five different opinions on the topic.
One doctor said that the idea that running is bad for your knees is “an old wives’ tale”.
Another doctor said arthritic pain in your knees is due to the genetic line you inherit from your parents.
A third physician said that the fitter you are, the less likely you are to develop knee pain.
A fourth doctor said if your feet pronate or your knees hyperextend when you run, you could develop knee problems.
And the fifth doctor said that ‘the jury is still out”, but noted that people who are carrying a lot of weight are more likely to become arthritic.
How to lose weight with bad knees?
Well hopefully one or more of the low-impact exercise options I’ve presented here in this article will work well for you.
And by work well I mean that you’re able to perform that particular exercise pain-free throughout your workout; that’d be awesome 😊.
That in turn will allow you to exercise more often and for longer periods of time, which will then provide you with more of the benefits that being active offers.
The US Dept. of Health says that the one of the benefits of sufficient physical activity is losing weight, provided you exceed their minimum Physical Activity Guidelines, which you can access on their website here.
I hope my research into finding good cardio for bad knees is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.