5 Cardio Workouts That Are Gentle On Your Knees (Because Running Can Be Painful)
As a single-attempt half-marathon runner (never again), I admire anyone who actually prefers the intensity and endurance of the sport. So when my near-60-year-old dad suddenly picked up a daily running habit, I was impressed, to say the least. That is, until his new exercise routine caused his former leg injury to flare back up—most notably in the knee.
He's not alone—knee pain is an incredibly common issue, especially considering the weight those joints bear all day long. Whether you're recovering from a serious injury (looking at you, Dad!), living with arthritis, or your knees simply suffer stress from overuse, deciding how to exercise can be tricky.
While building strength and maintaining flexibility can provide support for your joints, engaging in any workout that causes pain in the knees (such as running) will just keep them inflamed, says ACE-certified trainer Stephanie Thomas, CPT. That doesn't mean you have to give up cardio forever, though—just opt for one of these five types of exercise, which trainers say are just as effective but gentler on the joints:
"Walking is one of my favorite exercises because it helps improve your aerobic fitness and elevates your heart rate," Thomas tells mbg. "It is very similar to running but it's less impact on our joints." Plus, unlike more structured workouts, walking doesn't require a ton of preparation or equipment—simply lace up your sneakers and you're good to go!
Elliptical machines provide similar cardiovascular benefits as running, but they're less weight-bearing, says NASM-certified trainer Jason Williams, CPT. Since your feet remain on the pedals the whole time (i.e., no lifting and pounding against a hard surface), there's less chance of injury to the knees. You can also increase the resistance on an elliptical, Williams adds, which can elevate heart rate, calorie-burning, and muscle toning.
Jumping rope may not be the gentlest cardio exercise, but when compared to running "one could argue that jumping rope is better for your joints because it takes them through a smaller range of motion," fitness trainer BB Arrington, NASM-CPT, previously told mbg. It also provides the same lung, heart, and calorie-burning benefits of running in a shorter amount of time.
If you have access to a pool, swimming laps is a highly effective and gentle cardio workout. It puts the "least amount of stress on the joints, gets the heart rate up, and applies a little bit of resistance," Williams says. Because of its moderate intensity and low impact, it's also been considered one of the best exercises for managing heart disease. Grab your sporty swimsuits and dive right in!
Using a rowing machine is another type of cardio exercise that's less weight-bearing than running, Williams says. Plus, it activates the arms and back muscles for a full-body workout, he adds. Keep in mind: Rowing does require you to bend your knees, just with less impact and pounding (similar to the elliptical). Depending on the severity of your knee pain, take this workout in stride.
How to stretch for bad knees.
Even when doing lower impact exercises, stretching is an important part of any fitness routine and can help support strength and mobility in the joints.
"After completing a five-minute warm-up (which can be as simple as taking a walk), I highly recommend spending at least five minutes each day doing basic stretches that target the quads, calves, and hamstrings," Thomas suggests. "These stretches can help improve flexibility in the knee joint!" If you want more of a flow, these seven yoga poses are safe for people with bad knees. And don't sleep on the importance of a cool-down!
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.