Is Cycling Good for Knee Pain

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The human body needs to be exercised regularly in order to perform optimally and to stay healthy. There are many options when it comes to choosing an exercise regime, and some are better than others regarding the risk of injury.

One of the most common exercise injuries is to the knee because knees come into play in all forms of exercise and everyday life. The question then is: “If you suffer from knee pain and you feel the need to continue exercising, what are the best options?” In this article, we are going to take a look at whether cycling is good for knee pain. Let’s get to it.

The Need for Exercise

Modern humans, particularly in the western world, have become increasingly sedentary. The obesity epidemic in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom has resulted in high percentages of the population suffering from diseases like diabetes, resulting in early death.

The higher the Body Mass Index (BMI), the more difficult it is to start or maintain a healthy exercise regime. This is a vicious spiral out of which it is difficult to break. The need for exercise is self-evident, but there is also a need for caution because of the risk of injury. Doing too much too soon will often lead to injuries to various parts of the body.

The Knee in Exercise

Many parts of the human body are subject to stress under exercise, no matter the type of exercise undertaken. Most of the injuries that result can be put down to overuse. However, in addition to overuse, knees are prone to injury because of mechanical problems. We are all born with a skeletal structure that we inherit from our forebears, and it is very seldom without fault.

The most common problem is one of alignment where the bone structure does not align optimally. This can result in injury to the knees because of the stresses that come to bear. In walking and running, one hears of the terms “pronation” and “supination”, which refer to suboptimal ways in which an ankle and foot operate.

Pronation is the inward movement of the foot as it rolls while in contact with the surface, while supination (or under-pronation) occurs when the foot-strike causes the foot to lean outwards. Either of these conditions can result in knee injuries and can usually be remedied with specialized shoes and/or orthotics.

Exercising When You Have Knee Pain

Generally, when you are suffering from knee pain, you should address it by consulting an expert. This could result in temporarily ceasing exercise (i.e., resting), changing shoes, getting orthotics, or following the advice of a physician. However, there will be situations where the pain is not serious as the injury is just a “niggle”, and you wish to continue with exercise. So, what are the best options?

Firstly, the poor options are any form of exercise that puts a lot of strain on the knees. These include brisk walking, jogging, running, high-impact sports like squash and tennis, and most team sports, e.g., football, rugby, cricket, hockey.

Good options include the following:

  • Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, etc.
  • Swimming
  • Cycling

These are low-impact, non-weight-bearing forms of exercise. This means that you will not be causing damage or pain to your knee, and in most cases, you will be strengthening the muscles around the knee when doing these activities.

Cycling as an Option

There are two ways in which to exercise by cycling – on a static bike (so-called “spinning”), where accidents are all but eliminated; and out in the real world. Bicycles can be very expensive – at the top end of the range, you could be paying more than $10,000 for a new bike. However, a bicycle does not have to be expensive.

A decent second-hand bike with, say, 21 gears, can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars. As a means of exercising, you don’t need a frame made of space-age materials – that is for racers who benefit from a bike that is as light as possible. If your objective is to exercise, just a reasonable amount of gearing is all you need.

Whichever you choose, the only risk to your knees is through overuse, so, as long as you are sensible and do not overdo it, you should be fine. The cycling motion of the legs is such that strain to the muscles, tendons, and joints is minimal.

Senior man on his mountain bike outdoors

Can Cycling Reduce Knee Pain?

The answer to this question depends on the cause of the knee pain. If the pain has resulted from high impact and/or weight-bearing exercise, then cycling is a good option for continuing exercising without causing more damage and pain. It might not reduce the pain directly, but it is likely to build up the muscles around the knee, which could result in a reduction in knee pain.

However, if the pain has been diagnosed as being a result of a disease such as osteoarthritis, then there seems to be evidence that low-intensity cycling can have a beneficial effect. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that people with knee osteoarthritis can derive the following benefits:

  • Improved function and gait
  • Decreased pain and aches
  • Increased range of motion in the knees and hips
  • General increase in strength and fitness
  • Increased muscle strength around the knees

Final Thoughts

The key to moderate cycling as a form of exercise is that it is low-impact, non-weight bearing, and is a controlled movement in a stable position. If done sensibly and in moderation, it should allow continued exercise when suffering from mild knee pain and might even have beneficial effects on diseased or painful knees.

In any event, if your knee pain continues for more than three weeks, or you develop swelling, tenderness, warmth, or an inability to bear weight on the affected knee, seek medical attention immediately. Do not exercise the knee if it is painful in the motion. The purpose of exercise is to strengthen your body, not cause more damage.

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