Over the course of your lifetime, your knees take a beating. After all, you use them to sit, stand, walk, run, and make countless other movements with your legs—and depending on the movement, you put a surprising amount of pressure on your knees. Here, the top 5 exercises that'll help keep your knees pain-free as you age.
You've heard it before, and it bears repeating: Walking is one of the best exercises you can do for overall health and wellness. And it's particularly helpful for aging knees, says Pacheco. "Walking is an effective cardiovascular exercise that puts the least amount of stress on your joints, which makes it a great way to stay active, maintain proper weight, and to maintain your mobility as you get older," he says. Starting a walking workout—even if it's just a 15- or 30-minute stroll around your neighborhood once a day—can be especially important if your knees are often stiff, Pacheco adds. "Staying sedentary will make stiff knees stiffer," he says. "Walking is an easy way to get moving, and it's accessible for everyone."
One of the best ways to maintain healthy knees is to strengthen the muscles around the joint, which ultimately reduces the stress on it and keeps you pain-free, says Pacheco. While you can do these on a leg lift machine at the gym, you can also do them anywhere using no weights. Lie on the floor and, keeping your right leg on the floor, raise your left leg a foot or so off the floor. Lower your left leg and repeat 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, then repeat on the other side.
Similar to leg lifts, this move strengthens the quadriceps, glutes, and many of the other small muscle groups surrounding the knee joints, which in turn helps to keep them healthy over time. Pacheco likes this exercise because you can adjust the difficulty based on how good (or not) your knees are feeling on any given day. Stand with your back up against a wall with your feet hip-distance apart. Slide your back down the wall, as if you were sitting in a chair, to come to a squat position. The lower you sit, the more difficult the move—and the more pressure you might feel in your knees. (Just be sure that at your lowest point, your thighs are parallel with the floor, not lower.) Hold the squat for 30 seconds or until your muscles are completely fatigued.
When it comes to knee health, it's important to keep all of the leg muscles flexible, as they work in conjunction with the knees. This stretch hits all of the major areas of the leg, knee, and lower back. "Think of the muscles and ligaments around your knee and in your legs as a rubber band," says Pacheco. "When you consistently use a rubber band, it functions well. When it's not used regularly—and then you try to stretch it—the rubber band is more likely to snap. Stretching regularly keeps your muscles pliable and ready to be used, which means they're less likely to sprain or tear." To do this stretch, sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you, and then bring your left foot toward your butt. Drop your left knee out to the side as you place the sole of your left foot in your right inner thigh. Then, bend at the waist and slowly fold forward, reaching your hands toward your toes. Stay here for 1 to 2 minutes, and then switch sides.
As you age, the ligaments surrounding the knee joint become stiffer, which means they can't deal with the stress placed on them as well as they once could—and pain or injury can result. To keep these ligaments more flexible, you need to work the knee joint in a safe way—and step-ups are a great way to do this, says Pacheco. Set up a platform (or use a low bench or even a stair) and place both feet on the platform. Then, slowly lower the opposite foot to the floor, touching your toes to the ground, and then returning it to the platform. Repeat 10 to 12 times, and then switch sides. "Like wall sits, you can easily adjust the difficulty to suit you," says Pacheco. "Feeling stiff? Use a low platform. Want more of a challenge? Simply increase the height."
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