En español | If you've walked, jogged and hiked this far without any major knee trouble, there's more you can do than thank your lucky stars. A few basic steps can help you protect your knees as you age.
Besides being the largest joint in the human body, “the knees are unique in that the motion involved is very complex,” says Sanjeev Bhatia, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon and codirector of the Northwestern Medicine Hip and Knee Joint Preservation Center at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. “The knee has three compartments, any of which can cause pain with wear and tear.”
With the passage of time, a certain amount of wear and tear on your joints is inevitable. But it doesn't have to affect the way your knees feel, function or move. If you experience a clicking or popping sensation in the joint when you walk, bend or lunge, but there's no pain or swelling, you don't need to worry about it, says Dennis Cardone, D.O., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at NYU Langone Health in New York City. On the other hand, if you have pain or swelling with that clicking or popping, it's best to schedule a visit to your doctor.
Otherwise, to minimize your risk of experiencing pain, stiffness and inflammation in your knees, take these steps to protect these essential joints.
Toting around excess weight places tremendous pressure on your knees. “For every pound of weight you put on, the knees will have four more pounds of force on them and even more than that when you go up or down stairs,” says John-Paul Rue, an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. The flip side is true, as well. For every pound of excess weight you lose, you'll spare your knees from having to cope with four additional pounds of extra force.
Regular physical activity helps maintain joint function, including strength and range of motion in the knees, which “means less force gets applied to the knee,” Bhatia explains. Although it used to be believed that high-impact activities such as running are bad for the knees, the latest evidence shows that's not necessarily true. But there is a sweet spot for runners: A meta-analysis of 17 studies, published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, found that recreational runners had a much lower risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee than competitive runners and sedentary people did. “If you run, don't run on successive days; do it every other day, because we don't recover as well as we're aging,” Cardone points out. It's also wise to mix up your workout routines; so if you run three times a week, do something low-impact, like bicycling, Pilates, swimming or using the elliptical machine, on the in-between days.
Developing strong thigh muscles — especially the quadriceps, hamstrings and abductors — improves range of motion, protects knee cartilage and reduces the stress you place on the knee, says Richard Willy, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Montana School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences. Get in the habit of doing squats and lunges twice a week, making sure that your knees stay above your feet and don't extend in front of your toes. After age 50, avoid squatting below a 90-degree angle (with your hips dropping below your knees), because deep squats increase pressure on the knees, Cardone warns. If you prefer to use weight machines, opt for the leg press, hamstring curl, knee extension and outer-thigh (abductor) machines, Willy advises.