5 Low-Impact Exercises for Joint Pain
En español | You've been active most of your life — running, cycling, playing tennis — but what if achy joint pain is making those activities you once loved too challenging? Well, luckily, joint pain doesn't have to stop you from moving.
You simply need to adjust to the low-impact versions of exercises that support painful or weak joints while building muscle and improving heart health. First, talk with your doctor to get the go-ahead to exercise. Then, try the following joint-friendly activities.
Who knows, you may even find your new, favorite go-to workout.
You've probably seen this piece of equipment in the gym a hundred times but never used it. The rowing machine gives you a great low-impact cardio workout that also strengthens your whole body, from legs and core to upper back and arms.
"Rowing is low impact because of the seated position. This takes the body weight off of the knees and hips and redistributes it onto the seat, taking pressure off of the joints," explains Tricia Brouk, owner of Brouk Moves, an in-home personal training business specializing in senior health and wellness.
The best part, she says, is that you are in control of the movement: "The rowing motion is very smooth and can be increased or decreased in intensity by the action of the rower. The harder the client pulls, the more intense; the softer, the less intense." Before you try it, consult with a trainer at the gym to make sure your form is correct.
Here's a simple rowing workout to get you started:
- 400 meters slow (This is your warm up) (3-5 minutes)
- 200 meters, effort 4 out of 10 (exertion based on a 10-point scale, 1 being minimal) (45 seconds)
- 400 meters, effort 6 out of 10 (90 seconds)
- 200 meters, effort 8 out of 10 (45 seconds)
- 400 meters, effort 2 out of 10 (This is your cool-down) (90 seconds)
Yoga is an amazing way to rejuvenate your mind and body as you build strength and mental focus. A gentle-yoga class will be kind to your joints while helping you to maintain flexibility and stability.
"Stretching the muscles around joints can decrease compression in the joint as well as strengthen the muscles to help provide more support to the joint," says Caitlin Parsons, a licensed yoga therapist and owner of Healers Within. Most classes will be good for joint pain; the key is to avoid certain poses and movements that might put stress on your joints, especially your knees. Here are a few modifications to ensure more low-impact movements.
- Keep your knees straight and in line. Focus on aligning your knees over your ankles for bend-over poses and not letting them cave in toward each other. If they're coming together and you can't stop it, ask the teacher to help adjust you, which she will be happy to do.
- Don't hesitate to try props like blocks or blankets. If you don't know how to use them, go to class a little early for a quick tutorial. These accessories give you support and padding, making the poses easier to achieve.
- Plank with your knees on the floor (this is a modified plank), instead of bearing all the weight on your wrists, hands or shoulders. Start building strength here before trying full plank movement, Parsons suggests.
- Use your forearms for more support while in Downward Dog and Sunbird poses and when doing planks.
Ultimately, the yoga teacher will be your best guide for determining what is ideal for your aching joints. Speak with him before class and he'll make sure to help you with modifications during the session.
You may be familiar with the the black and yellow straps hanging in your gym. Often called suspension training, the classic TRX straps use gravity and a person's body weight to help build strength while easing the load on weak or painful knee joints.
Starting with TRX can seem intimidating, so ask a personal trainer to assist you with traditional exercises that involve pushing and pulling (think squats, lunges, pull-ups and push-ups).
If you know how to swim, get back into the pool! Swimming is similar to yoga in that the movements are relaxing as well as easy on your joints. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Rheumatology, "Regular swimming exercise reduced joint pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis and improved muscle strength and functional capacity in middle-aged and older adults with osteoarthritis." The study also found that swimming increased the quality of life for participants, along with decreasing their stiffness and physical limitations.
Luckily, many large gyms and community centers have a pool you can use year-round. In addition to swimming, you can do aquatic training. With the added challenge of water resistance, you can build even more strength.
Next time you head to the pool, give this workout a try.
Warm-up: Swim five full laps (both ways equals one lap), starting slowly and picking up the pace in the last two laps. Next, head to the shallow end for resistance moves like squat jumps, lunges and front kicks. Try 10 reps. Then go to the edge of the pool, hold on and kick your legs behind you, doing 10 reps on each leg. For your final exercise, perform a knee tuck by holding on to the edge and pulling each knee toward your chest.
To finish, swim three full laps, starting fast and slowing down in the last two laps for your cooldown.
Repeat this circuit 2 to 5 times for a full low-impact aquatic workout.
Go to any gym and you'll find a row of ellipticals. These machines let you simulate a walking, running or climbing motion, but with less strain on your joints. Because you can vary the intensity from low to high, the elliptical can substitute for running or enable you to take your walking routine to the next level.
A 2011 study published in Gait Posture Journal found that elliptical training significantly reduced weight-bearing stress on joints compared with other physical activity, including running and walking on a treadmill or outside.
When you hop onto a machine, there are a few ways to make the workout more challenging or easier.
Make it easier: For a less intense full-body workout, grab the handles and use them to take some of the focus away from your lower body. Make sure you're pulling your elbows straight back, close to your body. .
Make it harder: To focus solely on building strength in your legs, don't grab the handles. This forces your lower body to do all the work, allowing you to build more strength in your thighs' quadriceps without putting too much stress on your knees. Bonus: Without the support of your hands, you get a much more challenging core workout, as your trunk works to stabilize your body.
Make it even harder: To really up the ante, try intervals by changing both the incline and the resistance — the higher the resistance, the more challenging it will be. Alternate the height and resistance every 1 to 3 minutes for 10 to 20 minutes total.
Jessica Thiefels is a full-time blogger and fitness professional in San Diego, Calif.