If you run, play sports, lift weights or age — so, that’s everyone — chances are high you’ll sustain a knee injury. It’s one of the most common ailments for the young and the old. In fact, about 2.5 million adolescent athletes visit the ER each year for knee injuries, according to the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. Age-related injuries take their toll as well, with 14 million Americans suffering from symptomatic knee osteoarthritis.
The good news is it’s possible to keep exercising with a faulty knee. The first thing to know: Listen to your doctor. If she recommends you stay off your feet for awhile, then don’t push it, or you may cause further damage. Of course, not all injuries are the same. Rehabbing from a fracture or dislocation is different than rehabbing from a ligament tear.
Once you’ve been cleared to exercise, there are several moves and modifications to keep you mobile as you work your way back to 100%. Here are five:
STRETCH AND FOAM ROLL
“I’ve torn a meniscus and suffered other knee injuries, and I always start small when I return to exercise,” says Matthew Martin, certified personal trainer. “Stretching and foam rolling are both great ways to loosen up those unused muscles, especially if you’ve been in a cast or on crutches. Pay special attention to the quad, hamstring and IT band,” and you’ll prime your knee for movement and weight-bearing activities.
HOP ON THE BIKE
Cycling is a great, low-impact form of cardio that can strengthen muscles and lubricate joints, and it’s a common activity in all manner of rehab programs. The Arthritis Foundation recommends cycling for osteoarthritis sufferers and mentions recumbent bikes can be a good option if you require more support. One thing to avoid in the short term, however, is hills, as climbing puts extra stress on your knees.
STICK TO UPPER-BODY EXERCISES
“Knee injuries obviously limit what you can do at the gym, but there are still tons of exercises available to you,” says Martin. “Usually I will focus on the upper body, especially seated and supine work. You can work your chest, arms, back and more with dumbbells and machines, all without putting pressure on the knees.” Martin specifically mentions the dumbbell press, shoulder press, lat pulldowns and biceps curls as possibilities. “Ideally you want everything in balance, but you don’t have to neglect your whole body just because your knee is injured,” he adds.
If you’re ready to begin some leg exercises, he suggests starting slow and light with a mentality of “safety first.” Seated straight-leg raises, calf raises, bodyweight lunges and squats are all great, if you’re able to do them. To regain some stability in the knee, he likes standing on the round side of a BOSU ball to work on balance.
SLOWLY BUILD UP MILEAGE
If you’re a runner, too many days off can seem like torture. But you can’t expect to pick right back up where you left off. If you’ve been cleared to run, there’s a program to help you get started. According to running coach Jack Daniels, author of “Daniels’ Running Formula,” you can do some easy math to determine where to start.
He says if you’ve missed up to four weeks, you should spend your first two weeks back training at 50% your normal volume, and the next two training at 75% normal volume. If you missed more than eight weeks, you’ll need to take it even slower. In that case, he says to start at 1/3 your normal volume before moving to 1/2 and then 3/4. Doing so can help you get your fitness back and keep you from re-injuring your knee.
According to the University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, “Exercising in water is a gentle way to exercise joints and muscles. The buoyancy of the water supports and lessens stress on the joints and encourages freer movement.” Depending on the severity of your knee injury, you may not be able to kick, which makes swimming difficult. But if you can swim without risking further injury, it’s a great way to get some cardio while strengthening your muscles in a low-impact setting.