A regular walking routine can help you lose weight, build fitness and improve your mood — and it only requires a good pair of shoes. However, it’s a good idea to make sure your body — especially your knees — is adequately prepared before jumping in, especially if you haven’t been very active lately or if you’re planning to increase your distance significantly.
“The strength and muscle endurance needed for walking might not seem like much, but if you jump into a walking program too quickly, you might find you have some aches and pains,” explains Nicole Lombardo, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist
One area many walkers struggle with: their knees. Here, experts explain why they deserve a little extra attention, plus how to ensure your knees are in walking shape.
WHY PREP YOUR KNEES?
“The most common issue I hear about when someone starts walking regularly for exercise is patellofemoral pain syndrome,” says Lombardo. “This is when pain develops under or around the patella, also known as the kneecap.” It can have various causes, but one of them is the kneecap itself coming out of alignment and rubbing up against the surrounding cartilage and tendons or the femur (thigh bone). Often, it happens because of weakness and tightness in the surrounding muscles, explains Lombardo.
To prevent this common knee pain, “you definitely want to do a combination of strength and mobility exercises,” says Lombardo. “This will ensure your legs are strong enough to handle longer distances and prevent any tightness that might develop and cause pain.”
If you start to experience knee pain after walking, take stock of what could be causing it, Lombardo suggests. Are you stretching and strengthening? How supportive are your shoes? Are you walking mostly on unforgiving concrete? “There are so many factors of your walk that might affect your knees,” she adds. “If you still have pain after addressing all of these things, contact a physical therapist who is trained to help you problem-solve and get you back walking pain-free.”
EXERCISES TO TRY
At a minimum, stretch before or after your walks, recommends Lombardo. But if you want to set yourself up for the best chance of pain-free knees, give these exercises a try a few times a week. They’ll help strengthen the muscles around the knee and remove tension and tightness.
“Massaging around the kneecap can help improve range of motion,” says Jill Miller, co-founder of Walking Well. Place a grippy rubber physical therapy ball (or a tennis ball wrapped in duct tape) on a chair or the floor. Position yourself so you can orbit the ball slowly around your kneecap. From time to time, twist the ball as if it were a screw around the knee. Maintain tension on the ball and slowly open and close your knee. Make sure to twist the ball in both directions, spending some extra time above the kneecap, says Miller. Repeat on the other side.
Sitting on the floor with one leg straight out in front of you, squeeze your quad muscle. “You can do this by thinking of pushing the back of your knee down into the floor,” says Lombardo. You should see your knee straighten and your knee cap move slightly up toward your hip. Hold this for 5–10 seconds. Repeat 10–15 times on each side.
STRAIGHT LEG LIFTS
“Your knee joints come with a space made for your knee cap, but when your leg muscles get weak, the patella moves out of that space and digs into the tissues beneath, causing pain when you use your knees,” Miller explains. “This move works to pull the patella back toward its space, so using your knees while walking, flat, uphill and downhill feels good again.”
Lie on your back with one knee bent and the other leg fully extended on the ground. Before beginning the exercise, ensure your pelvis is in a neutral position. This means your pubic bone and hip bones should be level with the floor, not tilted toward your head or toes.
Rotate your straight leg so your knee is centered, not veering to the left or right. From here, lift your straight leg to the height of your bent knee while keeping your hips level on the floor. You want to feel your quads working in this exercise, not your hip flexors. “Move slowly, taking your time to lift the leg,” Miller instructs. Repeat until fatigued, then switch to the other side.
This exercise helps maintain knee alignment, says Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and co-founder of Walking Well. It also strengthens the quadriceps muscles. Place your right foot up onto a step with your knee bent. The bottom step of a staircase works well if you don’t have an aerobic step. Slowly push through your right foot until your right leg is straight, lifting your left foot off the floor. Then, slowly and with control, lower back down. Repeat 10–20 times on the same side, focusing on keeping your working knee in line with your foot and ankle, not allowing it to cave in toward your midline. Once you’ve finished on the right side, repeat on the left.
A squat is one of the body’s most functional movements, and practicing it can make uphill and downhill walking feel more comfortable for your knees. Depending on your fitness level, try a free-standing squat or, if that’s difficult or painful, squat to a chair and stand back up. “The key here is to only go as low as you can without pain,” Lombardo says. Be sure your feet stay flat and your knees are driving outward as you do these. Aim for a total of 10–15 reps.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.