The Secret to Avoiding Knee Problems as You Age

By: Keith


I wrote a review of P90X a few days ago.  In that article I mentioned the benefits of jump training.  P90X employs a lot of plyometric (jump training) type exercises which, for some people, can be quite hard on the knees.  A friend of mine reminded me of that fact, and I’ve taken it to heart to teach you what I know about knees so you can avoid problems with them in the future.  I too had bad knees at one time.  I used to run – a lot.  In fact, running was the only exercise I did.  I went fast and I kept it up for miles and miles.  By the time I got into college my knees were already beginning to hurt.  By the time I graduated from college I had stopped running altogether because I thought I had prematurely expended the usefulness in my knees.  I was convinced that my running days were over.  But, I was wrong because 5 years later I started doing martial arts, and a funny thing happened.  My instructors taught me how to walk, run and jump all over again.  By the time they finished, I had lost 45 lbs, and went right back to running without any problems.  What’s the secret?   It’s balance.    


Reasons for Knee Problems:    


1. Built Wrong: It’s sad, but it’s true.  Some people are just put together wrong.  But don’t fret because the vast majority of us aren’t in this category.  People will say, “My hips don’t align.  I have knock knees.  My feet pronate (or supinate).”  It could all be true, but most of that is entirely correctable.  In rare cases, though, people really are put together wrong.  There is just no easy (that doesn’t require surgery) fix for a short thigh bone or malformed hip socket.  Let’s not worry about what we can’t fix.  If you’re misshapen, this article isn’t for you.    


2. Prolonged and Irreparable Cartilage Damage: If you go too long without fixing your knee problems, you could wear away your cartilage to a point where the remedy might not bring you all the way back.  Again, physical therapy cannot regrow cartilage.    


3. Fat: Are you putting too much constant strain on your knees?  Stop it!  Of course losing weight is easier said than done.  Either way, if you’re fat then you must become unfat to give your knees a fighting chance.    


4. Weak: Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are what keep you aimed in the right direction.  Weak muscles are a major cause of knee problems because, during high impact or lateral movement, your knees aren’t supported, and they deviate from optimal position.  If repeated over many years, you could cause yourself serious problems.    


Improve Strength with Balance:    


Your knee problems are almost certainly caused by a lack of balance.  Balance is an acute sensitivity involving perception, touch and motor control.  My knee problems, and most knee problems, derived from a lack of balance.  My legs have always been strong.  But strength in one range of movement unbalances the rest of the body.  Underdeveloped balance forces the bigger muscles to compensate which slowly takes bones out of alignment.  Your big muscles should be for big movements like lifting refrigerators.  If their attention is taken away from that task then injury is almost inevitable.  My legs were strong because they did a lot of one movement.  Unfortunately for me, that didn’t mean I had fine motor control or balance.  There’s a difference between brute strength and functional strength.  Little stabilizing muscles don’t appear in the mirror, but they’re necessary if you want to live a life free of injury.  You have to do exercises that work the small muscles around your joints. That will, in turn, bring your legs into alignment and alleviate knee problems.  Balance is the key to avoiding knee problems.  It’s really that simple.  Before you do any weight training, plyometrics, running or anything – you must work on balance.    


Exercises and Devices to Improve Balance and Prevent Injury:    


Yoga: Yoga works every part of your body.  If you want to work exclusively on lower body balance for a while, and you have an instructor, you can ask him to build a routine that focuses directly on your lower body to improve balance.  If not, then there are a number of good at home DVDs that can help.  Do it three or 4 times a week to see major improvement in less than 6 months.    


Tai Chi and QiGong: QiGong forms the foundation for most martial arts.  Don’t worry about meditative QiGong or any of the questionable metaphysical nonsense of it.  What you want is dynamic and static QiGong.  Tai Chi is dynamic.  It’s a series of slow martial arts movements that develop strength, breath and balance as a foundation for life.  Here’s an article from the Mayo website if you want to read more.  I did Tai Chi for about a year, and I can attest that it’s one of the most effective ways to improve balance without risking injury.    


A Balance Disk: Balance discs are flat on the bottom so they don’t get away from you, but they’re round and squishy on the top like a ball.  There are whole routines you can do on these things, and it’s a fantastic tool, if you use it, for working directly on balance and posture.  Investigate for yourself here (Amazon link).    


Professional Physical Therapy: When I was still in high school I saw several doctors about my knee problems.  One, a podiatrist, told me my ankles were misaligned and that I needed orthotics.  Let me tell you, orthotics will relieve pain, but they’ll never fix any problems.  You have to start with the hips and work your way down, not the other way around.  I declined that suggestion.  I went to another doctor who directed me to do a series of leg exercises to stabilize my knees and hips.  His advice was good.  The problem was that I only did it for a few weeks before I quit out of sheer boredom.  What I realized was that directed physical therapy really works, but if you don’t have someone there with you to do it, you won’t do it by yourself because it’s mindnumbinly boring.  If you have the money to pay a physical therapist then go for it.      


Take off your Shoes: A lot of knee problems and balance issues begin with shoes.  I’ll bet you can’t individually control your toes.  That’s because you, and most people, wear shoes too often.  With your shoes off, stand up and balance over the front of your feet (without standing on your toes).  Grip into the floor with all your toes (not just your big toes).  You’ll be able to feel the muscles over your shins start to work, and it’ll probably get uncomfortable after just a few seconds.  That means, because you lack the strength to hold yourself with your toes, that when you walk you’re doing it by striking your heel first.  That’s wrong.  Go outside on the pavement without shoes.  Run 20 meters.  Do you notice how you’re running on the balls of your feet now?  You do that because you instinctively know to protect the bones in your heels by springing off the balls of your feet and gripping with your toes.  That’s how you should always run, lightly, using your feet as springs rather than jackhammers.  Shoes do our knees a grave disservice.    


Do you want a good indication of how bad your balance is?  This is going to sound pretty dumb, but it’s cheap and it’s a great exercise.  Get your kid’s skateboard and take it to a place on your carpet where you aren’t going to knock dishes off the wall or anything.  While on the carpet, try doing a manual (balance on the back two wheels).  This will give you an instant idea of how good your balance is and why you need help.  Also, do your hips and thighs hurt after trying it for a few minutes?  Well, that’s a sign that your stabilizer muscles aren’t working properly.  Next, try standing in tree pose (yoga).  Bring one foot up into your groin area with the knee pointing out to your side.  Put your hands in a prayer.  Are you losing your balance?  Another telling sign.  


Your knee problems are real, but they are not irreversible.  Spend some time fiddling around with those little stabilizing muscles.  Train them and improve your balance.  No, you won’t look different when you look in the mirror (unless you count better posture), but you will reduce your chances of getting injured, and you’ll make the next phase of working out, programs like P90X, much more productive and much less painful.  You don’t want to start a program just to then quit because of injury, right?  Balance is your key to a physiological pain free life.      


5 Responses to “The Secret to Avoiding Knee Problems as You Age”
  1. beth muse November 11, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    THANK YOU!! I intend to do some of this. I tried Tai Chi a while back, but stopped because I tend to lose interest after a while. And believe it or not, it hurt my knees! Probably doing it wrong. But I can definitely do some things to correct balance. I do think that I probably have some cartilage damage. Unfortunate but true. The exercise science prof. at the University near my home did instruct me to run on my “toes” or launch from my toes instead of heel to toe. When I do this, my knees hurt less, but they aren’t pain free. Thus I imagine I’ve damaged cartilage. He also agreed with you that today’s shoes are ruining our balance and the proper way to run is exactly as you described. Again, thanks!

  2. Maureen Sklaroff November 14, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    Wow! What a great article! As I mentioned in my post, I have major knee problems. Martial arts only made things worse, but we did a lot of extended stances that really strained joints (five minutes in a perfect table-top horse stance). Ironically, I’ve been meaning to start yoga, because it is so good for you. I had no idea that it also helped knees. My problem is that I tend to find things such as yoga and tai chi to be a bit boring. It is a reflection of my inability to quiet my “monkey mind”. This post was the final nudge I needed and I signed up for yoga.

  3. Misty December 12, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    Very informative blog. I tried the yoga pose and I wasn’t falling over immediately, but can tell I still need to improve my balance. Going to try out Austin’s skateboard also. Thanks so much.


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