Question: I really need some exercise advice. I get really bad knee pains (I had knee surgery on my left knee a few years back, and continue to get pain in both legs), so running, jogging and high intensity exercises are out of the question for me. Not being able to exercise is really discouraging, and makes it really hard for me to lose the weight. What are good cardio exercises that burn a lot of calories that I can do despite my bad knees?
SLIMQUICK Coach: Hi there! I’m so glad you asked this question! Everyday life can really wear and tear on the knees. From the most sedentary people to pro-athletes in tip-top form, knee pain and injury is one of the most common joint issues that people complain of.
Knee pain can be especially frustrating when you’re trying to lose weight and incorporate more physical activity into your life. Many common exercises (like running) exert a lot of pressure on the joints and knees, exacerbating pain and possibly leading to further injury and osteoarthritis. And because there seems to be a general impression that the more joint-pounding an exercise, the better the workout it provides, I see many people with knee problems either continue to torture themselves with these high-impact moves, or else just give up on exercise all together – both roads lead to harmful results, which ultimately gets in the way of successful weight loss and good health in the long run anyway.
It’s important for people with chronic joint pain, back pain and injury to remember this: when it comes to cardiovascular exercise and weight loss, what you’re doing isn’t always as important as how you are doing it.
An intense five-mile run or a set of jump squats may rank top marks as excellent calorie- burners on paper, but if each bounce brings on a flurry of pain or tissue damage, you’re hardly doing your body any favors by continuing to do it. A svelte waist-line will be much harder to maintain in the future if you keep grinding your knees towards eventual destruction in the present. You’re much better off finding something that strengthens – rather than breaks down – your body, that gets your heart rate up to burn body fat while also protecting your joints and improving your overall health and longevity.
“High Impact” Cardio vs. “High Intensity” Cardio
Terms like “high impact” and “high intensity” get thrown around a lot in the exercise and weight loss world, and these terms are often used interchangeably. However, there seems to be a lot of confusion around what these terms really mean. Understanding these exercise concepts will help you be able to customize the safest and most effective workout for yourself, to get you losing weight without exacerbating your knee issues.
Typically, high impact exercises require you to lift both your feet off the ground at the same time. Examples include running, jogging, hopping, skipping rope, jumping jacks, step aerobics, plyometrics, etc. These are called “high impact” because the momentum of your body lifting off the ground and coming back down again creates an impact that must be absorbed by your muscles, which causes them to work hard and burn calories. The problem is that the impact must also be absorbed by your joints and spine, which can lead to stress injuries, pain and damage in some people.
Low impact exercises, on the other hand, are usually performed with one or both of your feet on the ground at all times, such as walking, dancing, skating, rollerblading, running on an elliptical, swimming, etc. Because your body doesn’t leave the ground, there is less impact that must be absorbed by your muscles, back, knees and lower body joints. That’s what makes low-impact cardio exercises more ideal for someone who is just beginning with exercise, for someone who is overweight, or for someone with any kind of joint/bone/tissue pain or injury.
However, that doesn’t mean that low impact exercises are necessarily low intensity exercises. While “impact” refers to the force being placed on the body, “intensity” refers to the effort you put into the exercise. Increasing the force your body has to work against burns calories, but so does increasing your effort, and one doesn’t necessarily have to do with the other.
Further, intensity isn’t only created through the force of up-down movements – it can also be increased by moving side to side. The key is to put every ounce of effort that you can into the movement, by increasing your speed, distance, range of motion and resistance. These are the things that will stimulate your body to burn more fat.
So don’t be discouraged by the exercises that you can’t do because of your knee pain. There’s more than one way to burn fat! Discover movements that you can do, that do not cause pain – even if that involves just moving your limbs while lying on the floor. Do these movements continuously, as fast as you can, through as wide a range as you can, giving it everything you’ve got. The key is to get your heart rate and breath rate to quicken, and to sustain this challenging level of intensity (or increase it) for as long as you can.
There’s More Than One Way to Burn Fat
Remember: To increase calorie burn, increase one or more of these when you exercise: Effort, Endurance, Speed, Distance, Range of motion, Resistance.
The key is to get your heart rate and breath rate to quicken, and to sustain this challenging level of intensity (or increase it) for as long as you can.
8 Knee-Friendly Ways to Burn Calories
Here are some good low impact cardio exercises that minimize knee stress while torching fat. Increase the intensity as you get fitter and stronger so that you can get the weight loss results you are after.
- Cycling. A basic stationary bike can be purchased at reasonable cost these days (and used ones can be purchased for even cheaper). And if you can bike outdoors, all the better. Cycling is a low impact exercise that is easier on the joints and causes less inflammation and soreness in comparison to high impact exercises. In fact, recent research has even shown that cycling can help improve brain function and memory.
- Water Activities. Water activities like swimming, water running and aqua-fitness have been shown to speed up your heart rate, boost blood flow, and increase your lung capacity and burn calories while minimizing the impact on your joints. For people who enjoy running but experience knee pain, water running is a good alternative.
- Side Shuffle Steps. Shuffle two to three times to the right, then shuffle two to three times to the left, continuing from side to side as quickly as you can for as long as you can. Try to travel as far as you can with each individual shuffle.
- Sprinter Steps. Stand with both feet together. Touch your right toe far back behind you on the floor, and then bring it back to the starting position. Repeat ten times as fast as you can, then switch and repeat with your left leg. Up the intensity level by touching the floor in front of you with your opposite hand every time your toe taps the floor behind you (picture the starting position of a professional runner in a race). Bend from your hips to minimize the pressure on your knees.
- Speed-Skater Strides. These involve leaping side to side in wide strides, from one foot to another. To minimize the impact of this exercise, keep one foot on the ground at all times, and keep the leaping foot close to the ground (more like a sliding motion than a jumping motion). Increase intensity by increasing the distance you cover side to side, and also by picking up speed. Picture the side-to-side strides of a speed skater moving down the ice. To ensure knee comfort, keep your body low to the ground.
- Dance like nobody’s watching, or like everybody’s watching – whichever one you find more motivating. Blast your favorite tunes, have fun and let loose. The key is to sustain a pace that gets your heart rate up and quickens your breathing, and to keep going at this intensity for as long as you can.
- Elliptical Training. The foot pads on an elliptical trainer cradle your joints, so that you can perform the same range of motion that you can while running, minus the impact and knee pain. Another perk is that a lot of elliptical trainers have arm poles for you to grab on to while you run, which you can either use in the stable position for additional support or can move back and forth to get an upper body workout as well.
- Back-to-Back Strength Training. When doing strength training or lifting weights, give yourself minimal rest time between sets (aim for no more than 10 to 15 seconds). This will get your heart rate up, boost your cardio and increase fat burning while simultaneously toning your muscles.
A Strong Heart Can Overcome Weak Knees
When it comes right down to it, your cardiovascular system doesn’t really care what you do – as long as you are doing it continuously, intensely and quickly, and you maintain this pace for as long as you can manage, your heart rate will climb, your body will start to consume calories, fat-burning hormones will be stimulated and you’ll start losing weight far more effectively and successfully than you could without cardio training.