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Cardio Cure-All: Exercises for Bad Knees and Ankles

Swim, climb, row or bike — anything to take it easy on those achy joints. Finding exercises for bad knees or ankles should not be a challenge, and these options will provide you with a good cardiovascular workout that avoids straining the joints.
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A few years ago, I decided to take up running. I jumped right into training for a marathon—after never running more than the occasional (breathless) mile around the block. I figured I did enough non-running cardio that my transition into long runs would be easy. Right? So wrong.

Within three weeks, I was plopped on a doctor’s table with “runner’s knee,” an outer-knee pain that forbid me from straining my knee for two weeks (an eon in marathon-training time). To keep my marathon dreams alive, I was forced to get creative with my cardio. Exercises for bad knees and ankles

“If you’re suffering from a knee or ankle injury, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your cardio,” says Ashley Richardson, a Bay Area–based personal trainer. “There are tons of options that will get you to break a sweat without further harming the joints.”

A lot of us feel forced to choose between exercising and risking further injury to bum knees and ankles, or giving up on it and suffering the unhealthy consequences. Well, risk no more—I found some knee- and ankle-friendly cardio options that’ll keep even die-hard runners entertained and challenged while getting their heart rate up.

 Got a Gym Membership?
Swimming
Not only does swimming burn an incredible amount of calories (close to what you’d burn on a run), but it offers a wide variety of options to get your heart pumping in the water. As an alternative to your usual laps, try putting a buoy between your legs (squeeze it tight!) to get more of an upper-body workout, or hold on to a kickboard in front of you to work just your lower half. “Just don’t push off on the wall, to protect your knees and ankles,” says Richardson. 

Upper-Body Ergometer
This is that piece of equipment in the cardio area at your gym that looks like a bike for hands. Treat it like any other piece of cardio equipment—go for a long forty-five-minute stint or pound out a shorter and harder interval session. Warning: this will be extremely hard for just about everyone at first, since most people aren’t used to using only their upper body for cardio. 

Kranking
This high-energy group class is showing up more and more at gyms across the country. Think spinning, but with an upper-body hand cycle included. 

Rowing Machine
Just about every gym has a rowing machine or two, and they’re often some of the most underutilized pieces of cardio equipment. Rowing is mostly upper-body work (great for toning up your arms and shoulders), but your legs provide low-impact support by pushing against the machine with each stroke. 

Circuit Weight Training
This style of lifting not only builds up muscle mass but also increases your heart rate by stacking all the moves back to back, so you won’t take a break until the end. Keeping your weights lighter and your reps higher will make this more of a cardiovascular activity. Be sure to alternate muscle-group exercises (for example, by following a biceps move with a back move), and limit yourself to thirty to forty-five minutes. Include bench presses, curls, push-ups, and core exercises to keep your knees and ankles safe. 

Elliptical
The elliptical is a low-impact form of cardio that mimics running; it can work for a lot of people with knee or ankle issues (but check with your doc first, just to be safe). The motion that we make while powering through an elliptical workout uses a combination of both arms and legs for power, but it won’t strain your lower joints. 

Breaking a Sweat, Gym-Free
Kayaking
If you’re lucky enough to live by an ocean or a lake, there are probably kayaks for rent somewhere nearby. This kick-butt workout burns nearly four hundred calories an hour and requires absolutely no stress or pressure on the ankles and knees. 

Pilates and Yoga
Who says these workouts are just for relaxing? Some of the Pilates and yoga DVDs out there will help you work up just as much of a sweat as circuit training or a cardio machine will. Look for power yoga or Ashtanga yoga workouts, and intermediate to advanced Pilates routines—they’ll keep your heart pumping and your body moving, and they’ll improve your flexibility to boot. 

Biking
Biking is an ideal form of both indoor and outdoor exercise; either way, it’s a challenging workout that doesn’t put much strain on the knees or ankles. My doctor even recommended that I cycle to stay in shape when I had a broken ankle a few years back. 

Rock Climbing
Whether you find a nearby rock-climbing center (which can train you and equip you with the proper gear) or decide to give it a try outside (also with supervision, of course), this activity uses plenty of arm and leg strength and power, but your knees and ankles won’t take a beating from it. Plus, it burns nearly four hundred calories in just thirty minutes—that’ll tone up those arms for tank-top season quickly. 

Play It Safe
Of course, it’s always crucial to talk to a doctor about your particular ankle or knee issues and make sure the specific exercises you’re interested in are smart choices. Personal trainers can be great resources too—I asked one at my gym about my runner’s knee, and once she showed me how to stretch my legs correctly post-run, I never experienced the problem again. 

As long as your doc doesn’t veto an activity when you’re trying to overcome joint strain, what’s the harm in trying all of them out? Getting creative with your workout is a powerful tool for staying motivated—injured or not.

Updated February 8, 2011

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