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How can I get cardio exercise if my knees are damaged?

Asked by Jonvon Trotha, Cincinnati, Ohio

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I have torn meniscus in each knee and it gives me pain when I exert myself. I have been through physical therapy three times and several doctors. They just keep referring me to physical therapy. It doesn't seem to help. How can I get 30-60 minutes of cardio every day with greatly limited use of my knees?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Jonvon,

As someone who has undergone two knee surgeries myself, I can definitely understand your pain and frustration, and I commend you on your desire to try to do 30-60 minutes of cardio every day. Here are some recommendations:

1. Break it up. Research shows that you don't have to do 30 minutes of cardio all at the same time. Try breaking your cardio up into 10-minute bouts to minimize knee pain.

2. Take the weight off. Focus on nonweight-bearing exercise such as swimming and cycling (outside or in the gym). If you have pain in your knee during cycling, try decreasing the resistance and pedaling faster to get your heart rate up. If you can tolerate a little resistance, this could help strengthen the muscles around your knee and decrease pain long term. In addition, I'm sure you've heard it before, but if you are carrying any extra weight, losing weight could help as each pound of excess weight puts considerably more stress on your knees.

3. Think outside the box. According to the latest government guidelines, the recommended daily exercise doesn't just mean hitting the gym. Gardening, dancing, and even cleaning count as moderate-intensity activity per the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

4. Build muscle. Don't forget about muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week. If you really want to get fit, you could do muscle strengthening exercises more often by dividing your workout up into individual body parts and working several each day. Just make sure to rest one day per week to allow your body to recover and prevent further injury.

You may want to hire a personal trainer to help you design an optimal fitness regimen and ensure proper form as many injuries or pain stem from improper technique. Make sure that your trainer is certified by a reputable agency such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Finally, you may consider taking glucosamine and chondroitin for knee pain. A large, federally funded research study found that these supplements may help decrease pain in people with moderate to severe arthritis.

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