Low Impact Exercise for Bad Knees

knee pain

If you’re someone affected by a knee, hip or ankle injury, you know from experience it’s no fun! Last week I had an MRI taken of my right knee, and the results came back today. What showed up on the images was an injury to the patella cartilage – a full thickness fissure.
For the past year I have experienced an increase in pain with certain activities at work and leisure. Running and any kind of high-impact exercise have long since become a no-go. It’s been terribly frustrating. Having the MRI explained why…

So now what?

If you’re dealing with a similar issue or maybe have arthritis, joint degeneration or past surgeries that cause your joints to hurt with increased activity – rest assured that you are not automatically bed-ridden for life.

There are tons of ways you can exercise while avoiding pounding your joints to powder. Just this past year alone has taught me so much. But don’t just take it from me – try some of these low impact exercises for bad knees yourself!



blue pool

This probably doesn’t come as a shock to you. Swimming is overall one of the best exercises for reaping cardiovascular and strengthening benefits while keeping the impact on your joints to a minimum. Besides running, it burns anywhere from 400-600 calories per hour (depending on how fast you swim). Many people, however, fail to utilize this form of exercise.

How come?

Most people’s excuses boil down to these three reasons.

  1. They have limited access to a pool
  2. It’s boring
  3. They don’t like being wet


O.K. If you live in a cold climate where the nearest indoor pool is at an expensive gym 30+ miles away, I’ll give you a pass. However, for the majority of people (myself included), finding access to a pool is not that difficult. The benefits are seriously too great to excuse away.

Just a few health benefits of this low impact exercise are:


  • It builds up bone mass
  • Builds stronger lungs
  • Builds lean muscle
  • Weight loss (when accompanied with a healthy diet)
  • Improves your sleep cycle
  • Decreases stress


Not bad! If those reasons alone aren’t enough to get you interested, then find a friend to go swimming with. TIP: bringing along a friend or training partner for activities often times encourages yourself to push yourself farther. It’s human nature for us to be competitive and show others we can excel.

You can also invest in a set of waterproof Bluetooth headphones. The prices will vary but you can find a very decent pair for $100 or less online. I know for me, listening to music while I exercise is a huge motivator to keep going.

Check out Best Waterproof Headphones – My Top Picks for my personal favorites!

Have you ever wondered why such a large percentage of people in their 40’s+ swim and participate in water aerobics? It’s not because swimming is any easier than other forms of exercise. It’s because it provides so many benefits while cushioning the joints. It allows a person to push themselves without experiencing pain.

For those battling joint pain, this is invaluable.



cycling cardio exercise


Coming in at a close second for low impact exercises for bad knees, cycling is an excellent form of cardio that also strengthens your legs – particularly your quads, iliopsoases and gastrocs. Many people use this form of exercise to elevate their heart rate without the constant jarring that running or other high impact activities cause.

The benefits of cycling are very similar to those of swimming, with strengthening, weight loss, improved heart health and sleep habits high up on the list. Additionally, cycling is an inexpensive way to care for your health. Forget those monthly gym membership fees! A bicycle is a one time purchase that comes with a lifetime of benefits. I still have my bike from when I was a young teenager. It has served me well over the years.

As always, whether its swimming or cycling, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Don’t push yourself through pain EVER. I’m not the best at this, as I love to test my limits. Runner’s high is a real thing and was something I was used to getting after most workouts. The longer I pushed myself, however, the more it damaged the cartilage in my knees.

The bottom line? Let common sense be your guide. If you notice a change in your workouts because you are having to hold back due to pain, then go see an orthopedic doctor. At the very least you will at least get some insight as to what is causing the pain. Whether its pain in your knee, hip, or back, taking care of your body should always come first.

Check out Health Benefits of Cardio

Circuit Training

free weights cardio exercise

Over this past year, circuit training has become one of my all-time favorites. It incorporates so many muscles groups while not jarring your joints. Plus your exercise options are ENDLESS! At first, I couldn’t believe how many compound movements I could do while just sitting. The variety might actually surprise you. One of my favorite circuits to do was 3 rounds of abs and arms, then perform my PT exercises (within pain-free range). Here’s an example of one of my workouts.


Round 1:

  • Cross body chopping with medicine ball 20 reps X1 set BILAT UE
  • Diagonal crunches on fitness ball 30 reps X1 set
  • Single knee to chest, double knee to chest with medicine ball lying supine
  • Plank X1 min


Round 2:

  • Push ups 10 reps X2 sets
  • Shoulder press 10 lb dumbbells
  • Bicep Curls 10 lb dumbbells
  • Triceps Dips with single 15 lb dumbbell
  • Bent over rows 10 lb dumbbells


Round 3:

  • T-stand dips 10 reps BILAT sides
  • Knee to elbow crunches 30 reps X1 set
  • Standing medicine ball across core – 50 reps as fast as you can!
  • Cross body chopping with medicine ball 20 reps X1 set BILAT UE


After completing those 3 rounds X3, boy was my heart rate up! Keeping your rest breaks to a minimum in between sets (30-90 sec) also helps maintain your heart rate in that working zone! If you’re interested in some of my other variations of circuit training, just shoot me a message.

Also, if you’re interested in what foods to eat to keep you fuller longer, click here.



rowing low impact exercise

Another good low impact exercise for bad knees is rowing. For this exercise, good form is especially important. Hunching your back too much or rushing through is never a good idea. Here are three things to keep in mind.

  1. Maintain Good Posture

So many people slouch or roll their shoulders forward on this exercise because overtime their posture at work, school etc. has become poor. When you pull back, try to keep your spine straight and your shoulders relaxed. This not only engages the core, but it also protects you from injury.


2) Keep a good pace

For those of you who think rowing should be lightning fast for both the backward and forward motion, think again. Rowing too quickly can cause you to overcompensate with different areas of the body. If you find yourself shooting back so far that it causes your back to hunch forward, slow it down some. The ratio of backward motion to forward motion should be 1:2. Also, having a mirror to check your form is very useful as well.


3) Always check the damper setting

If you want to adjust the rowing machine for a more challenging workout, then turn up the damper setting to allow more air into the flywheel. This in turn will slow down the machine, creating more resistance for you. Likewise, if you find yourself having a hard time maintaining good posture because the resistance is too much, lower the damper setting. This will allow less air into the rowing machine, making your workout easier.



ellipticals in gym low impact exercises for bad knees

If you’re looking for another low-impact exercise that gets your heart rate up, the elliptical is your friend! The motion you do on these machines is very similar to skiing, which means you’re getting an excellent workout for the quads, glutes, hamstrings and gastrocs. Be sure to always use the hand railings to increase the intensity!

I like to start off at a moderate pace for about 5-10 min to warm up. Then I up my pace for at least a good 15-20 min (depending on how my knees feel) before cooling down at a slower pace for 5 min. It’s another excellent form of cardio that strengthens your whole body while burning loads of calories at the same time.


Walking on Soft Surfaces

trail walking exercise


For those with bad knees or other health issues, walking is a good alternative to other high-impact activities such as running or jumping. Although it doesn’t elevate your HR as much as running, the benefits are still well worth doing every day.

  1. Helps maintain healthy weight
  2. Good for heart health
  3. Keeps your bones strong
  4. Improves mood and sleep habits
  5. Fights aging process


It’s fascinating to see how people in their 60’s, 70’s or 80’s get around so well if previously they walked on a consistent basis. It definitely makes a difference. As we age, it’s normal for our muscles to shrink and our balance to decrease. Walking is just one way you can slow down that process.


Conclusion – Low Impact Exercise for Bad Knees 

hiking with walking sticks

To sum everything up, there are many ways of exercising that are easily on the joints. The ones I’ve listed above are just a few. I would love to hear your thoughts! What low impact exercises have you found helpful?



Sarah Gaddes