Your knees do so much for you. Every time you walk, get out of bed or off the couch, crouch down to pick something up, climb a staircase, hold a squat, or go for a run, your knees are hard at work. As such, they’re susceptible to a lot of wear and tear.
The good news: From incorporating certain exercises to supplementing with certain nutrients, there’s much you can do to support this important joint.
Do Your Knees Need Some TLC?
Though you might think knee health is a topic for middle-aged and older people, issues with them can occur at any age, says physical therapist Dr.Tim Fraticelli, D.P.T. And since they tend to worsen over time, you’ll want to address any issue as soon as they arise—even if you think you’re too young to really need to worry about it.
Poor knee health can manifest in a variety of ways, but there are some telltale signs that indicate something may be off. “The main signs are difficulty bending the knee during weight-bearing movements, such as performing a squat or going up or down the stairs,” says physical therapist Dr. Nicholas Rolnick, D.P.T., C.S.C.S.
You may also feel pressure and/or pain in the knee during these activities, and notice pain and/or swelling afterward. “Many of my patients with knee pain report symptoms of increased swelling or feeling like their knee is just going to ‘give out’ at times,” adds Fraticelli.
In many cases, people will start to walk with an imbalanced gait in attempts to take weight off of the affected leg—an attempt to cope that can ultimately lead to issues in the hips and back, too, Fraticelli notes.
A subtler sign that something is off: feeling stiffness in the knee after sitting for more than 30 minutes, says Rolnick. Feeling more comfortable sitting with your knee straight instead of bent is another tip-off.
Surprisingly, any noises (like clicking) aren’t anything to worry about—unless they’re accompanied by pain, he says.
How To Support And Strengthen Your Knees
With that in mind, here are six easy things you can do to bolster your knee strength and overall knee health.
1. Do leg extensions
This exercise, which targets and develops the most important muscles for knee health, your quadriceps, is a godsend for those with knee pain, according to Rolnick.
You can use the leg extension machine at the gym to do the movement, though you can also reap the benefits at home by using a resistance band or dumbbell.
Just follow these steps:
- Sit in a chair (with a back) with your knees bent to approximately 90 degrees. You can hold onto the sides of the chair to stabilize your upper body.
- First, perform the exercise without any additional weight. Slowly, lift one ankle to straighten the leg into a fully locked-out position so your entire leg is parallel to the floor. If you are unable to fully straighten your knee because of pain or lack of mobility, go as high as possible and try to increase your range of motion with each repetition (as long as doing so doesn’t increase your pain).
- Once you achieve a locked-out position, hold for one to two seconds.
- Then, unlock the knee and return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side.
If bodyweight reps are too easy, add an elastic band. (Check out this video on how to secure it to the chair leg.) Simply pull the band around the front of your ankle, twist, and secure the loop around the middle of your foot, Rolnick says.
To perform the exercise with a dumbbell, you’ll need to squeeze the bell between the middle of your feet and extend them together.
Start with three sets of 10 repetitions per day, adding resistance every couple of weeks or so, says Rolnick. The goal: Progress to three sets of six to eight repetitions, in which the last couple of repetitions are extremely difficult but pain-free. This repetition scheme can significantly increase muscle mass, strength, and the function of the knee joint,” Rolnick comments. Two to three times per week is enough to provide a therapeutic effect.
2. Take turmeric
This potent superfood in supplement form may be a boon for your joint health. “The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which has antioxidant properties,” says dietitian Courtney D’Angelo, M.S., R.D., of Fit Healthy Momma. As a result, consuming the golden root in supplement form can support joint health and comfortable movement. She recommends starting with at least 60 to 100 milligrams of curcumin per day.
3. Do clamshells
Interestingly, one of the other best exercises for people experiencing knee pain actually focuses on strengthening a different area of your body: your glutes—specifically, your gluteus medius muscles, which are found on the outsides of your hips.
“Strengthening the gluteus medius helps the knee by improving stability at the hip,” explains Fraticelli. “Without a strong gluteus medius muscle, the hip tends to rotate inward, causing the knee to collapse inward as well. This places additional stresses on the knee, which may be further worsened by degenerative changes.”
One of his go-to’s for targeting these muscles? Clamshells. Here’s how to do them:
- Lie on your side with your legs stacked, knees bent, and feet together.
- Keeping your pelvis stable and feet together, press your top knee up so that your top leg rotates open (a motion that looks like a clamshell opening).
- With control, reverse the movement to return to your starting position.
Fraticelli recommends doing three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side per day.
4. Stretch Your Quads
In some cases, tight quads contribute to knee pain and other issues, which is why Dr. Kristina DeMatas, D.O., founder of Sporty Doctor, recommends the standing quad stretch for supporting your knees. “People who enjoy cycling, yoga, and running often opt for this easy-to-perform exercise to improve knee flexibility,” she says.
Here’s her rundown of the stretch:
- Start standing on a single leg (use a chair or wall for support, if needed).
- Bend your right leg at the knee and lift your heel back and up to your glutes.
- Reach your right hand back to grasp your right ankle.
- Engage your core to maintain a straight posture and relax your shoulders.
- Gently pull your ankle back towards your glutes and hold for 30 seconds.
- Return to starting position.
DeMatas recommends doing five repetitions per side at least five times per week.
5. Get more omega-3s
Another winning nutrient for joint health: omega-3 fatty acids, which you can get from eating nuts, cold-water fish, egg yolks, and supplements. Because of their antioxidant properties, omega-3s can support healthy joints and movement, in addition to their many other benefits.
EPA and DHA, the types of omega-3s fatty fish are rich in, in particular, work by both triggering the body to produce chemicals that help control inflammation associated with exercise and by limiting the production of harmful proteins, D’Angelo explains.
The going recommendation here: one to three grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day to best promote joint health.
6. Try aqua spinning
Also called aqua cycling or underwater cycling, this form of exercise may be particularly effective for your knee health if you have issues. “For people experiencing knee pain because of arthritis, specifically, research shows that biking in the water can result in less pain and improved quality of life, ” Fraticelli says. In this 12-week study, research participants engaged in two 45-minute aquatic cycling sessions per week. After the 12 weeks, those who cycled in the water reported decreased knee pain and improved functional mobility.
When To See A Pro For Help
If you’re starting to experience knee pain, don’t ignore it. “The earlier you can identify the root cause, the better off you’ll be,” Fraticelli says. “Ignoring your knee pain or ‘walking it off’ may lead to more serious issues down the road.”
Should you notice knee pain, swelling, or difficulty walking that lasts for more than two weeks, it’s time to check in with your physician or a physical therapist, he suggests. In many cases, you’ll need to focus on specific exercises to strengthen the supporting muscles of the knee and hip—and a professional can help you create an appropriate plan.