The knee is the largest joint in the body—a complex engineering marvel of ligaments, bones, muscles, and tendons—that endures hundreds of pounds of torque depending on what you demand of it. Mogul skiing? Zumba class? Even getting up out of a chair to answer the doorbell requires a certain choreography that’s fraught with risk.
An anatomical illustration of the knee joint looks like a softball held in place with rubber bands and duct tape between two baseball bats. No wonder knee pain is the most common injury complaint of anyone who stands erect—from professional athletes to troop committee members who go backpacking twice a year.
Are your knees a pain? The remedy is not necessarily to get off your feet and on the couch but to stand up and keep moving, says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies.
“I have some knee arthritis,” says the 43-year-old Dr. Metzl, who has completed 29 marathons and nine Ironman triathlons. “Building strength around the joint has really helped me.” Building knee strength is especially important for women, because female knees are particularly prone to tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
“Strong legs protect your knees,” says Dr. Metzl, who recommends lower-body exercises to strengthen and stretch the quadriceps and hips. Equally important is aerobic exercise such as hiking and running or low-impact, leg-strengthening activities such as cycling, swimming, elliptical machines, and pool running. Try these exercises (opposite) to improve both lower-body flexibility and strength of the supporting muscles.
Start with a brief warm-up of jumping jacks, arm swings, and high-knee marching in place. And, as always, schedule a doctor’s exam before embarking on any new fitness program.
Low Side-to-Side Lunge: (Shown above) Stand with your feet spread apart about twice the length of your shoulders, feet pointing straight ahead. Shift your weight to your right leg as you push your hips backward and lower your body by dropping your hips and bending your right knee. As you lower into the squat, extend your left leg out to the left side, with your left foot flat on the floor, heel down. Without standing, lunge to the left. Alternate back and forth this way for 40 seconds. Rest and do another set.
Hip Raise: Lie face up with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your arms out to your sides at 45-degree angles, your palms facing up. Raise your hips by pressing your heels into the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Squeeze your butt muscles as you raise your hips. Hold this position for five seconds then lower your butt to the floor. Repeat 10 times.
Jump Squats: Place your hands behind your head and align your elbows with your body. Perform a squat: Bend your knees and sit back—as if sitting into a chair—until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Leap explosively by driving your feet into the floor. Jump as high as you can. When your feet hit the ground immediately squat in a controlled fashion until your thighs are parallel with the floor, and jump again. Do 10 jumps. Rest and do another set.
Take a Load Off
As you age, the extra pressure on the knee from being overweight can break down the cartilage supporting the joint and lead to long-term pain. Fortunately, even losing a small amount of body weight can have a significant effect on the health of your knees.
A study in the Journal of Arthritis & Rheumatism has shown that every pound of weight loss results in a four-pound reduction in knee-joint load. Researchers suggest that a person who drops 10 pounds would lessen the amount of knee-joint pressure by roughly 48,000 pounds for every mile walked.
How’s that for a motivator to lose weight and shape up for the troop’s next 10-miler?
When to See a Doctor
If you believe your have arthritis in your knee or your knee is swollen, visit your doctor for a diagnosis. For swelling, rest, elevate your leg, and apply ice to your knee up to six times a day for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time. Do this for the first two days of swelling. Also take ibuprofen or naproxen to help reduce inflammation.
Stretch and Strengthen Your Legs Before Your Next Hike
In addition to those moves shown above, perform these key stretches to keep your knees and ankles healthy for the trail.
Sit on a chair and place your left foot flat on the floor, your knee bent at a right angle. Extend your right leg straight and lift your foot about 6 inches off the floor. Use your big toe to trace each letter of the alphabet to stretch and strengthen your ankles and calves. When finished, repeat the exercise with your left foot.
Roll it Out
You’ll need a foam roller for this move. (Never heard of a foam roller? Check out Trigger Point’s GRID, $40; tptherapy.com.) Lie face-down on a floor with a foam roller positioned above your knees. Bend your arms to right angles and place your elbows and forearms on the floor for support. Roll your body backward until the roller reaches the tops of your thighs. Then slowly roll back and forth from above the kneecap to your hips.
Jeff Csatari’s latest book is the The New Abs Diet Cookbook, co-written with Daniel Zinczenko, available at menshealth.com/abs-diet-cookbook.