Bad knees can be a challenge for walking, but it is a recommended way to maintain your function and reduce your symptoms. If you have knee pain due to osteoarthritis or other causes, you don’t have to let that keep you from starting a walking program.
A regular program of walking can reduce stiffness and inflammation and it won’t make most chronic knee conditions worse. Walking is the preferred exercise by people with arthritis, and can help you improve your arthritis symptoms, walking speed, and quality of life, according to the CDC. Walking is part of a healthy lifestyle to keep your heart and bones strong and your joints functioning. Here are tips for walking when you have bad knees.
Why Walking Is Good for Your Knees
Your knee joint is composed of bone and cartilage. Cartilage doesn’t have a blood supply that is always nourishing it by the pumping action of the heart and so it relies on joint fluid for nutrition. Moving your joints is the way that you ensure the cartilage receives the nourishment it needs to stay healthy. You may notice that your joints are stiff and sore in the morning or when you’ve been sitting and inactive during the day. By moving your joints, you help them maintain their function and you may help keep them functioning longer.
Regular exercise maintains and builds muscles, which you need to support your knee and maintain functioning. Weight-bearing exercise such as walking also helps maintain bone health.
Should You Walk When You Have Knee Pain?
If you have mild to moderate pain in your knees due to osteoarthritis, walking and other exercise helps mobilize your joint fluid and lubricate the joints. You should walk and do other exercises that move your knee joints. You are likely to find that the stiffness, pain, and fatigue improve with exercise.
If you have moderate to severe pain in your knees before you start walking, take it easy. Do a shorter walk at an easy pace or try an activity that doesn’t place much stress on the joint, such as water exercises in a pool. If joint pain remains severe, stop immediately as it is a sign of inflammation or joint damage that needs treatment.
If you have joint pain occasionally the day after a walk or run, you should take a day off and do a shorter workout or one that doesn’t put stress on the joint. If you always have joint pain after exercise, you may have to switch to a form of exercise that doesn’t put stress on the knees, such as cycling or swimming.
Tips for Walking With Bad Knees
- Choose the Right Shoes: The best shoes for your knees are ones that are flat and flexible, such as athletic shoes for walkers that bend in the forefoot and have a low heel-to-toe drop. Avoid high heels, pointy toes, and heavy shoes. Look for shoes with a wide toe box. How bad are heels? Even a 1.5-inch difference in the height of the heel to the toe can increase pressure on two common sites for knee osteoarthritis damage. Look for heels of no more than three-quarters of an inch in height for dress shoes or casual shoes.
- Inserts: When you have bad knees, avoid arch supports and shoes that have a high amount of arch support. You want your foot to move as naturally as possible. You can use over-the-counter orthotics that provide cushioning and support if you think that is helpful for you or they have been recommended by your doctor or podiatrist.
- Warm Up: You may benefit from applying heat to your joints before you walk, or walking after taking a warm shower or bath. Starting at an easy pace is recommended for everyone, but especially when you have stiff or sore joints. Start slow to get your joint fluid moving. Then you can pick up your pace after a few minutes.
- Choose Softer Walking Surfaces: While walking is far lower in impact than running, you can still get jarring with each step. Walking on natural surface trails (dirt, bark dust, pea gravel) is easier on the joints. Although they may be uneven, that also gives you more balance exercise naturally during your walk. For even surfaces, choose a cinder track at a school or community park. Asphalt is also easier on your joints than concrete. When you have a choice, take an asphalt path rather than a concrete sidewalk. Note that flooring in malls and stores is primarily concrete.
- Build Your Walking Time: If you are new to walking, steadily build up your walking time following a plan for beginners. Your walking can be broken up into 10-minute segments, with a goal of walking for 30 minutes per day. You can start at an easy or moderate pace as you build your endurance. Your ultimate goal should be to walk briskly at 2.5 to 3.5 mph or a pace that has you breathing harder than usual.
- Aim for 6000 Steps per Day: A study found that people with osteoarthritis knee pain benefit most when they walk 6000 steps or more per day. If you wear a pedometer or use a phone app to track your steps, all of your steps during the day count. Make that your first goal. If you can eventually exceed that regularly without increasing pain, that is good.
- Schedule Your Walks for Low-Pain Times of Day: If you have a lot of pain or stiffness in the morning, simply try to get up and move around for a minute or two every half hour. You will better enjoy long walks at a time when you have fewer aches, and that will help you be consistent.
- Cold Packs After Walking: You’ve done well by getting your joint fluid moving. You can apply cold packs afterward to help reduce inflammation.
- Use Walking Poles: Some people find that using trekking poles or Nordic walking poles helps them with stability and reducing joint fatigue when walking. Canes and other walking aids may be useful, depending on your condition.
- Cycling: Adding cycling on a stationary bike, bicycle, or even an under-desk cycle can help keep your opposing muscles in shape for better support of the knee.
- Lose Excess Weight: If you are overweight, losing even a few pounds can reduce stress on your knees. Diet is the most effective way to lose weight. You will be able to walk and exercise with less pain and discomfort after some of the excess weight has been lost.
- Keep Moving Throughout the Day: Get up and move around or stretch every 15 minutes. This will keep your joint fluid moving and nourish your knees. Even just a minute can help reduce the health risks of sitting and will be good for your joints.
Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity and can help you maintain joint health. However, it’s not the only option. If your bad knees keep you from walking, you can get the physical activity you need by enjoying cycling, pool exercises, swimming, or water aerobics. You should also include resistance exercise to build and maintain muscles, including any specific exercises recommended for your knees by your doctor or physical therapist. Balance exercises can also be beneficial. Once you are confident walking, you can even include them in your walking workouts. Keep moving.