woman stretching her leg

It's easy to come up with excuses when you don't want to exercise. "I have bad knees" is one of many, and if you have bad knees, you may feel you should avoid exercise. However, reducing your activity level may weaken the muscles that support your knee and make the problem worse. Don't let knee problems get in the way of your health--there are plenty of exercises that put very little strain on your knees. Managing your knee health with safe exercises followed by safe stretching, and including physical therapy as needed, can you help you avoid costly surgeries or pain medications overuse.

Dos and Don'ts
Keep this list in mind whenever you're doing something physical to avoid aggravating the condition of your knees or worsening a recent injury.

  • DON'T: participate in sports that require sudden stopping and starting, jumping, and twisting. These movements put undue pressure on your knee joints.
  • DO: try activities such as swimming and low-impact walking and cycling that will strengthen your leg muscles and improve your cardiovascular health, while being gentle on your knees.
  • DON'T: do high-load exercises such as lunges and squats if they increase pain. If you do choose to do these, be sure to use proper form so you do not injure yourself. Be careful with knee position and added weight.
  • DO: consider joining a yoga or Pilates class. These classes offer full body workouts that focus on core strength, breathing, and stretching. A qualified instructor will be able to guide you into poses that support knee health. You can apply these lessons to everyday activities, such as walking up stairs and lifting heavy objects. You may find more pain-free patterns of movement by correcting bad habits and mobilizing the knee joint properly.

While there are many causes of knee pain, some of the most common are:

  • Arthritis
  • An acute injury, such as a torn ligament
  • Medical conditions such as the Osgood-Schlatter disease
  • Congenital structural abnormalities
  • Muscle imbalance
  • Obesity
  • Overuse

Helpful Stretching Exercise
Here are a few stretching exercises you can try at home, regardless of the cause of your knee pain. Remember to warm up your muscles gently before stretching.

Quadriceps Stretch
Your quadriceps (quads) are a group of muscles located on the front of your thighs. One of their functions is to extend your knee joint.

Stand facing a wall. Place your left fingertips on the wall for balance. Bend your right knee and reach back for your right ankle with your free hand. Gently pull your foot towards your buttocks until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. Keep both knees aligned. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side. If this is too challenging, wrap a belt or a tie around your ankle and grab the belt with your free hand for more slack. You can also do this lying on your side or on your stomach and just bending your knee until you feel a stretch without pulling. This can help you keep proper alignment. You want to feel a slight discomfort from the stretch but no pain.

Hamstring Stretch
Your hamstrings are located on the backs of your thighs. They flex your knee joint. If you sit down for much of the day, you probably have tight hamstrings.

Lie on your back. Bend your left knee and place the foot on the floor. Raise your right leg. Take a strap (a belt, or a tie) and loop it around the ball of your foot. Grab the strap with your hands and pull your foot towards your face. Stop when you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Keep just a slight bend in the right knee as you do this. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

Iliotibial Band Stretch
Your iliotibial band, the IT band, is a thick band of tissue located on your outer thighs. It crosses both hip and knee joints and is responsible for stabilizing your knee joint.

Stand up straight and cross your left foot over your right foot. Place your left hand on your hip and lean your upper body to the left, pushing your right hip to the right. Your inner thighs will press strongly against each other. Pause when you feel a stretch in your outer right hip or thigh. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

Additional Help
Take a few minutes each day to improve your knee health and you may soon realize that you are not cursed with bad knees forever. Depending on the cause, strength training and stretching can help alleviate your knee pain and transform bad knees into good knees! However, if your knee pain is severe or is worsening, you may need additional treatment. Talk to your doctor or a medical practitioner such as an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knee and joint health.