Do Your Knees Ever Feel Like a Rusty Hinge?

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Robin Robertson
Certified ACE Personal Trainer
Functional Aging Specialist

USA Cycling Coach


As a hinge gets rusty, it becomes restricted and harder to move.  It stiffens up when it’s been sitting for too long.

They creak and crack with movement.

They no longer swing freely and remind you that each movement takes work.

With your knee, there is the deep ache of joint discomfort or sometimes the stabbing jolt of pain that I call a “stinger.”

Achy knees or arthritis may prevent you from the activities you love (running, hiking, even walking).  When your knee feels like a rusty hinge, then comes the spiral….You stop doing the things that aggravate your knees because it hurts.  Then your knees start to feel rustier because you aren’t using them.  Any you do less…and they hurt more.  How do you break this spiral and return to fun and healthy activities?

The key is to start moving again.  As a rusty hinge is rocked with consistent movement, the action starts to get smoother.  But how to do this without risking damage or causing pain?

Being someone who was diagnosed with bone-on-bone arthritis since I was 24 years old (and now I’m 55), I have a LOT of experience with how to keep your knees working and not feeling so rusty.

Here’s the secret: Non-impact, no weight bearing movement through a full range of motion in your knee.  And when done correctly, it doesn’t hurt – it actually feels good!  It feels like you are oiling the joint and in reality you are!  This movement helps the joint to produce healthy, thick synovial fluid which is your knee’s lubricant.

Non-Impact:  Why it’s important

A non-impact activity means you are moving your joint without the additional stress of much compression.  Compression happens every time you take a step: it is where your bones come together and are either padded by the meniscus cartilage or, if you are bone-on-bone, then you are just banging bones together.  That hurts.  Non-impact activities reduce the banging = no pain.
When walking, every time you take a step the compression force through your knee joint from the impact of your foot striking the ground is 2 – 3X your body weight.  When running it's 5 – 6X and when jumping 9X your body weight.  This is why staying a healthy weight is ESPECIALLY important to maintain healthy joints and/or reduce arthritic pain.

What You Can Do: Using an elliptical machine is a weight-bearing low-impact activity (because there is no “foot-strike” with the ground – your feet continuously in contact with the foot pads).

Non-Weight Bearing:  Why it’s important

Weight-bearing (for your knees) means that you are in a standing position and the weight of your body goes through your hips and knees to your feet.

What You Can Do: Swimming and bicycling are non-impact, non-weight bearing activities.  Swimming is non-weight bearing because the water is supporting your body weight.  Bicycling is non-weight bearing for your ankles, knees, and hip joints because your body weight is on your butt:  your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) are in contact with the bike seat holding the weight of your body.

The thing I especially like about cycling is that it is also a no-lateral movement for your knees – so if you have any instability in lateral or side to side movement, cycling is the best choice for you.  Plus you can control your movement easily if your ride your bike indoors.

The Key to Getting Started 

(of course, have doctor approval before you try any of this):

Consistency:  Swim or ride your bike at least 2X per week.  3X is better.  Remember, the key to “removing the rust” is to consistently use your joint in a healthy pain-free way with a full range of motion (whatever that may mean to you).  It is extremely important that your bike seat height and position relative to your knees over the pedals are correct.  For more on that, check out my book “Healthy Knees Cycling.”

Duration: How long will depend on your level of conditioning.  Start with what you can do – 15 minutes? 30 minutes? and work up from there.  Remember, something is better than nothing.

Make it your Priority:  Simply put, if it's not a priority, it won’t happen.  “I don’t have time” is because you haven’t made time – so stop using that excuse.  Pick the 2 or 3 days per week and the time that you’ll exercise and make an appointment with yourself.  This is the most important thing you can do for you – and it will make you a BETTER YOU so that you can do more of the things you love in life.

Is there Hope?

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You bet.  You may not have to give up your beloved impact sports if you add in some non-weight bearing, non-impact activities to give your knees a rest.  Plus STRENGTH TRAINING – but I’ll address that in a future post.  You will certainly find some relief and reduction (or elimination) of pain.

I still have my “original equipment” with 10 knee surgeries to date (no knee replacement yet) and my husband and I recently completed a 22-day bicycle adventure over 1,043 miles with more than 25,000 feet of climbing.  I could only make this wonderful bike trip because I’ve been consistent and some-what pig-headed about taking care of my knees and my health.  Am I pain-free?  Not always.  Some days are better or worse than others.  I can no longer do many of the activities that I loved (running, skiing), but bicycling has saved my knees and my spirit.  I’d like to help you do the same, and so I wrote a book called “Healthy Knees Cycling” that tells you exactly how to set up your bike to protect your knees and gives you guidelines and workouts to get started.

Wishing you a healthy life and happy knees,

~ Robin