7 Ways to Protect Your Knees When You Exercise

Knees and how you can protect them

You need your knees to last a lifetime. However, surgeons perform around 790,000 knee replacements each year for knees that were no longer healthy enough to be functional. Unfortunately, knees, especially older knees, are prone to injuries and degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis. Even with a total knee replacement, the replaced knee is often not as functional as healthy, natural knees.

On a brighter note, there are ways to lower your risk of developing significant knee degeneration or damage. Exercise that strengthens the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thighs may reduce the risk of osteoarthritis by creating more support for the knee joint, and it doesn’t have to be high-impact movements. Studies show that low-impact exercise improves the symptoms of osteoarthritis. A 16-weeks study of adults with osteoarthritis found that those who did lower-body strength-training exercises enjoyed greater improvements in functionality and fitness and a 43% reduction in pain and stiffness. Those are significant improvements!

These days, most doctors recommend that people with osteoarthritis exercise but do it safely. Gone are the days when the recommendation was to do as little exercise as possible if you have arthritic joints. Everyone needs exercise to reduce the loss of muscle and bone due to aging. Here are some practices to avoid when you exercise if your goal is to keep your knees healthy and pain-free.

Don’t Exercise in the Wrong Shoes

Choosing appropriate shoe wear is always important, but even more so if you have knee arthritis. Make sure the shoes you exercise in fit well and have adequate support. Shoes with good support will help absorb any impact your foot sustains when it touches the ground, and that’s safer for your knees. People with knee arthritis may also benefit from supportive insoles.

Avoid Exercising on Hard Surfaces

Regardless of the shoes you wear, don’t exercise on hard surfaces, like concrete or asphalt, or on uneven terrain. If you have mild knee arthritis, you may still be able to do high-impact exercise in moderation but follow your doctor’s guidelines on that. If you do high-impact exercise, give yourself 2 or 3 days break between high-impact sessions and avoid doing the same high-impact exercises over and over. If high-impact exercise aggravates your knee pain, don’t do it. You can get a high-intensity workout without jumping or running.

Don’t Skip Flexibility Training

Balance out strength training with flexibility exercises that improve mobility and reduce joint stiffness. When thinking of flexibility, stretching probably comes to mind, but yoga is another alternative for boosting range-of-motion. A study of people with osteoarthritis of the knee found that 90 minutes of Iyengar yoga with modifications led to a significant decrease in pain and improvements in functioning after only 8 weeks. As the Arthritis Foundation emphasizes, you may need to modify some poses to meet your needs. Always use pain as a guide and don’t do anything that feels uncomfortable.

Don’t Lock Your Knees When You Extend Them

When you do exercises like leg extensions, avoid locking your knees at the top of the movement. Doing so places added stress on your knee joints. Leg extensions also place added stress on the anterior cruciate ligament. That might not be a problem if you have healthy knees, but avoid leg extensions if you have a history of ligament injury.

Avoid Taking High Steps

Avoid doing exercises that require you to lift your leg high, as this movement places extra stress on your knees. Walking up stairs two at a time or using a stair climber with high steps is something to avoid, especially if you have knee pain when you do them. If you do step workouts, keep the height of the platform low.

Listen to Your Body and Adjust Your Workouts

Be aware that certain exercises, like deep lunges or deep squats, may worsen knee pain. If that’s the case, don’t go as deep or do a variation that’s easier on your knees. Monitor how you feel afterward too. If you experience worsening knee pain a few hours after a workout, it’s a sign you need to modify your exercises or reduce the volume you’re doing. It’s okay to back off a bit when you experience an exacerbation of knee pain. After a while, you’ll be more in tune with what your joints can tolerate. With osteoarthritis of the knee, you can have mild symptoms that are easy to live with or ones that are severe enough to force you to modify how you work out. Be kind to yourself and be willing to rest your body when you need to.

Don’t Skip the Warm-up or Cooldown

If you have arthritic joints, you might have joint stiffness that makes working out more challenging. A longer warm-up can help you raise the temperature of your muscles and work through the stiffness. The best way to warm-up is to do low-impact movements that get your heart rate going and dynamic stretches, such as hip circles and arm swings. Some people benefit from applying moist heat or taking a hot shower before starting a workout too. At the very least, you need a 10-minute warm-up to increase muscle flexibility and pliability. After your workout, gradually reduce the intensity of your movements and let your heart rate drop. That’s the time you can do stretches to lengthen the muscles you just worked.

The Bottom Line

Even if you have knee arthritis, you still need to move your body and keep your quads strong. Use these tips to protect your knees and lower your risk of knee pain when you work out but stay active! Exercise has too many health and fitness benefits not to include in your life. It all counts for your health!



  • J Rheumatol. 2001 Jul;28(7):1655-65.
  • American College of Rheumatology. “Exercise and Arthritis”
  • J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2016 Mar; 71(3): 406–411.Published online 2015 Aug 22. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glv127.
  • Research in Sports Medicine. An International Journal. Volume 20, 2012 – Issue 2.
  • aaos.org. “Total Knee Replacement”


Related Articles By Cathe:

What’s the Best Type of Exercise to Prevent Knee Osteoarthritis?

How Your Joints Age & What You Can Do to Slow It Down

Are the Joint Aches You’re Experiencing Due to Arthritis?

When Your Knees “Crack” and “Pop” What Does It Mean?

What Impact Does Strength Training Have on Arthritis?

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