Your knee is the largest joint in your body. It is also one of the most complex, with a mix of bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons, all working together.
Keeping your knees healthy and strong can help stave off potential injuries and knee deterioration as you age, helping you remain mobile. Osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) and osteoarthritis (wear and tear in the cartilage of the joint) are common knee problems that seniors face, but there are steps you can take to help your chances of avoiding those painful conditions.
Dr. Zachary Sandbulte of Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Clemmons answered questions about exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and developing range of motion to improve your knees.
Why is it a good idea to strengthen my other leg muscles, and which ones should I concentrate on to help my knees?
There is substantial data showing that if you keep your muscles strong around the knee joint, those muscles support the joint and take stress off the joint. The opposite of that is if those muscles get weaker, your knee joint is going to bear more of the burden. Trying to strengthen all the muscles is helpful, but especially your quadriceps, which is the large muscle at the front of your thigh.
You also want to keep your muscles loose. If you have a lot of tightness, particularly in your hamstrings, that can put a little extra stress on the joint.
How does body weight affect your knee health?
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Data shows that every pound you lose is about 4to 5 pounds of stress off the joint. A modest weight loss – 10 pounds – is 50 pounds of stress off the joint. Multiply that by 5 or 10 years and that makes a sizable difference.
As an example, pick up luggage before you go to the airport and walk around the house for a while and see how your knees feel. You can feel the difference in your knees, and if you multiply that over years, it can erode the cartilage quite a bit faster.
What about people unable to do high-impact exercises that include running and jumping? Are there low-impact exercises that can help?
Being active, in any way, is the most important part. Walking is an impact activity, but it is very low impact. Using ellipticals and cycling are great, but to me the best exercise is swimming. It’s fluid motion. It's resistance. It's low impact, or no impact on your knees. The problem is you have to have access to a pool.
How does developing range of motion help knee joints?
Joints, generally speaking, want to move. If we immobilize joints, they'd get stiffer and do worse. It's important to keep moving your joints. You don’t necessarily have to be pushing your motion as far as you can all the time. Go through your comfortable range of motion as much as possible. Let pain be your guide, to a degree. Don't push it as far as you can and make yourself uncomfortable.
Why is it important to mix up your exercises, instead of just running, or biking or walking?
Doing different exercises helps it from becoming a chore. If you focus on one exercise, you're going to get stronger with the muscles you use in that exercise. But you risk other muscle groups starting to atrophy. It's a great idea to mix it up as much as possible now. For some people, that's easier said than done. Most important is to stay active.
Being active is helpful across all the systems of your body, including psychiatric, neurologic, cardiovascular, etc. I tell people I feel like my job is figuring out ways to keep people active as much as possible.