Experts recommend that everyone should get about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise a day. If you have bad knees though, getting enough cardio can be a challenge — and too much of the wrong kind of cardio can worsen the pain. If that’s the situation you’re in, there’s hope. The best cardio exercise for bad knees is out there.
You don’t have to drop cardio from your workout. Instead, add any one of these simple and effective exercises to your routine. When you do, you’ll get enough cardio without putting too much stress and strain on those all-important knee joints.
What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?
Before telling you about the best cardio exercise for bad knees, let’s first define cardio exercise. Cardio exercises are particularly beneficial for the circulatory system, as well as the heart and lungs. For a workout to be considered cardio, it must meet the following criterion:
- The exercise must involve aerobic metabolism.
- While performing the exercise, heart rate and respiration must increase, while boosting oxygen and blood flow throughout the body.
- The exercise must tax large muscle groups through rhythmic and repetitive movement.
It’s that last bit that gets tricky for people with bad knees.
Common Knee Injuries
What’s causing your knee pain can vary. If the problem you are experiencing is too severe, you should, of course, seek medical attention right away. Otherwise, here are just a few reasons your knees might be hurting:
1. ACL Injury
ACL injuries are particularly common among basketball players or those who play any sport requiring rapid changes of direction
2. Torn Meniscus
Sort of the knee’s shock absorber, meniscus tears come from twisting your knee suddenly while the joint bears weight.
3. Knee Bursitis
The bursae are small sacs of fluid that cushion the outside of the knee. Strain or stress on the knee can irritate the bursae causing pain.
Lack of use or overexertion can also cause mild knee pain. Rest, icing your knee, or even light physical therapy usually takes care of most minor knee pain issues.
But when you’re feeling better and ready to get back at it, there’s no reason to cut the cardio entirely out of your workout. Up next are some great cardiovascular exercises to prevent knee pain.
Best Cardio Exercise for Bad Knees
When most people think of cardio, they think of running or jogging. Both are great types of cardio exercise, but the high-impact nature of running and jogging rules it out for most people suffering knee pain.
Think outside the box — or beyond the track, as the case may be. Choose from these low-impact cardio exercises instead.
Any water-based aerobic exercise is an excellent substitute for jogging. Some people walk or do jumping jacks in the pool, letting the water cut down on joint impact. We recommend swimming; especially these swim strokes, known for working multiple muscle groups while also burning a lot of calories.
Or instead, try a back wall glide. Here’s how:
- Begin by holding onto the pool ledge. Following that, press your feet into the wall and tuck your knees to your chest.
- Then, push off from the wall. Be sure to float on your back as far as possible.
- Drawing your knees into your chest, the next step is to press your feet down to the bottom of the pool and run back to the wall.
- Repeat this exercise for 5-10 minutes.
One of the best things about a pool cardio workout is that relatively little gear is required. For an extra challenge, though, consider adding equipment like hand paddles, resistance gloves, or kickboards.
Some say elliptical machines offer all the cardio and calorie-burning benefits of running or jogging with much less impact on our knees. There’s disagreement about which one burns more calories, elliptical trainers, or treadmills. Treadmill sometimes comes out on top, but effectively, it’s a tie.
For those seeking a cardio option with minimal knee impact, elliptical machines are a slightly better option. That’s because, with an elliptical machine, your feet never leave the pedals. This cuts stress and strain not only on your knees but also on your hips and ankles.
Simply using an elliptical machine for 20–30 minutes is a great place to start. Begin at a resistance level that works for you, and build from there.
Another great cardio option for anyone suffering knee pain are step-ups. You can do them most anywhere, like on a park bench or some other kind flat, stable surface. Or instead, pick up a step bench for home use. Many step benches come with adjustable risers to accommodate different height requirements.
Here’s how to perform a step-up exercise:
- Step up onto the bench with your dominant foot. For many, that’s the right foot.
- Pressing through your heel that is flat on the bench, bring your other foot up to meet it so that you are now standing on the bench.
- Reverse the movement until both feet are back to their starting position: flat on the floor.
Repeat this process 10–15 times. Then switch the lead foot and go for another set of 10–15 steps.
For those battling knee issues, it’s essential to keep your knee directly over your ankle as you step up onto the bench.
For a low-impact cardio workout that also strengthens your core, consider a rowing machine. Over time, you’ll build endurance and power, and rowing machines let you increase the resistance for an added challenge.
If you’re new to a rowing machine, we recommend following this workout for beginners, resting for one minute between sets.
- Beginning at 20 SPM, row for three minutes at a leisurely pace.
- At 22 SPM, row for three minutes at a quicker pace.
- Set the SPM to 24 and go for an additional three minutes at a moderate pace.
- Repeat the set at 24 SPM with additional effort.
- Go for 10 minutes at the SPM and effort level of your choice.
Rowing machines are good for bad knees, which many people use to strengthen their knees after injury or surgery. However, it’s important to use proper rowing machine form to minimize stress and strain on your knees.
Whether cycling outdoors or on an indoor stationary bike, cycling is another excellent, low-impact exercise for anyone struggling with a knee injury. If you cycle outdoors, avoid any extra stress and strain on your knees by sticking to flat terrain. If cycling is taxing on your knees, try lifting the seat.
If you’re cycling indoors, consider a spin class. In a spin class, endurance and strength are built through intervals using a specialized stationary bike with a weighted flywheel. You can try intervals at home with your own stationary bike by alternating low resistance sprints, and medium to high resistance climbs.
Always start at a low resistance if you’re cycling with knee problems, and build from there. If knee pain does become an issue, consult with a trainer or physical therapist right away.
Believe it or not, walking at a moderate pace in appropriate, supportive shoes is pretty great cardio. Best of all, it’s low impact on the joints, whether you’re walking indoors on a treadmill or outside in the fresh air.
Follow these simple pointers to prevent added stress and strain on your knees while walking:
- Begin by walking in 10-minute increments, and build your total time for walking from there. Aim to walk for about 30 minutes a day, or about 6,000 steps total.
- Choose softer surfaces over hard asphalt or concrete, like walking on a dirt path or in a grassy field.
- Be sure to warm up by walking at a slow pace and build in intensity over time.
Additional tips for preserving your knees while walking include: adding walking shoe inserts to your walking shoes, or walking with the added support of trekking poles or Nordic walking poles.
Medicine Ball Workout
Lastly, there are lots of great workout routines for bad knees that you can do with just a medicine ball — a weighted ball frequently used for strength training and rehabilitation. And maybe the best thing about a medicine ball is that they’re cheap and easily available.
The best medicine ball workout for bad knees? The medicine ball march!
Here’s how to march with an exercise ball:
- Hold the medicine ball with both hands straight up over your head.
- Lift one knee while lowering the ball down to touch the knee.
- Bring the ball back to its original position over your head, lower your leg.
- Repeat the process with the other leg, continue at 60-second intervals.
Be sure to start slow with exercise and build intensity over time. When you’re ready for a challenge, target the muscles of the upper body. Keep the medicine ball at chest level instead of directly over your head.
No matter what workout you choose, it’s always important to warm-up, especially for those with bad knees. Up next, we’ll tell you how to warm-up for your workout with bad knees.
Best Workout Warmup for Bad Knees
- Before beginning, march in place or around the house at a moderate rate. Do not put too much stress or strain on your knees. Keep it up for at least 5 minutes.
- Stretch muscles of the lower body — focus on the quads, hamstrings, and calves in particular.
Cooldown is also important at the end of your workout. When you’re done exercising, try marching in place at a leisurely rate until your heart rate has decreased. Once it has, stretch your lower body again, with particular emphasis on the quads, hamstrings, and calves.
Hit the Showers: A Final Word on the Best Cardio Exercise for Bad Knees
As stated at the beginning of this article, cardio is an important part of anyone’s workout. Experts recommend everyone get about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio on a daily basis. If you have bad knees, though, this can be challenging, leading some with knees issues to drop cardio from their routine.
No need! We have seven great, low-impact workouts perfectly suited for those with knee problems. That list includes swimming, elliptical machines, step-up exercises, rowing machines, cycling both indoors and outside, walking, and medicine ball workouts.
If your knee issues are too severe, do of course seek medical attention, especially if any of these workouts worsen your condition. And as always, don’t forget to warm up before exercising, and be sure to cool down once you’re done.
Otherwise, choose from any one of these exercise options, and you’ll get enough cardio in your workout to stay happy and healthy for life — even if you have bad knees!