Keeping Knee Cartilage Healthy in Winter: Avoiding Winter Slips and Falls

Many people know the importance of keeping active to build strong muscles and bones. Exercise also plays an important role in building healthy cartilage, the fibrous but flexible connective tissue that cushions your joints. Cartilage acts as a barrier to the damaging friction of bones rubbing against each other. It also acts as a shock absorber and allows the joints to respond to outside forces. Keeping healthy knee cartilage is vital for avoiding slips and falls during the icy winter months and keeping knee pain at bay.

With age, cartilage can begin to wear away. As a result, knee pain and swelling can impact movement and strength. That’s why it’s important to keep moving and find activities that you enjoy. In the blog post below, Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin physical therapist Kyle Sirek describes exercises that can help you to build and maintain healthy knee cartilage. 

Keep it Low and Slow

One of the most important aspects of keeping active to build healthy knee cartilage is finding exercise that you enjoy doing that isn’t painful. It can be difficult to find an activity that isn’t too strenuous for people who already struggle with knee pain. The key is keeping the exercise you do low-impact and going at your own pace. 

“High impact exercise isn’t always a poor choice unless it doesn’t feel good for the individual, but we know that incorporating regular movement and activity into our lives is very important,” Sirek explained. “And any movements performed need to be appropriately scaled for each individual’s current level.”

Examples of Low-Impact Exercise

An example of a low-impact but effective exercise is going on a simple and short walk around your neighborhood or in nature. Walking is a great option that allows you to gain the benefits of running without putting excessive stress on your joints. Walking can be done almost anywhere and cost nothing but a good pair of shoes! You can start slowly and walk for about 10 minutes at a time, three to five days per week. Gradually increase your time and frequency to help build your strength and endurance.

If walking isn’t your favorite activity, try riding a bike for another knee-saving exercise. Since most of the pressure is placed onto your seat while biking, it can keep your joints moving with less stress. You can also go at your own pace and go as fast or as slow as your body allows. If outdoor activities like walking or biking are out of the question for the cold and icy winter months, try using the treadmill or stationary bike indoors for a similar effect.

Swimming is also a great activity for building strength while keeping the impact on your joints at a minimum. Plus, you can swim indoors year-round. Doing laps or participating in water aerobics is a great way to build strength as the buoyancy of the water keeps the stress off of your joints. That’s why we see aquatic therapy as an amazingly effective physical therapy tool for incorporating low-impact exercises to help our physical therapy patients recover from injury and improve their joint health. 

“No matter which activity you are excited about pursuing, the most important pieces are the level of enjoyment, sustainability in each person’s daily life, and that it is initiated at a level that the body can accommodate healthily and productively,” Sirek said. 

Stretch and Strengthen

Another great way to support healthy knee cartilage is by incorporating stretching and strengthening exercises. Sirek recommends the following simple exercises to get you started:

  • Single-Leg Balance
    • Stand on one foot while not hanging onto any objects. Remain close to a table or countertop in case you need to catch yourself. Hold for 20-30 seconds at a time. 
  • Sit to Stand
    • Standing up and sitting down can be a good place to start and is easily incorporated throughout the day. It can be made easier or harder by raising or lowering the surface or using arms more or less.
  • Side-Lying Leg Raise
    • Our hips are important for knee health, so starting some strengthening of those muscles in a non-irritating way can be very helpful for knee health. Lay on your side and lift your leg towards the ceiling. Keep your knee straight and leg in line with the body.
  • Bridges
    • Bridges are another hip strengthening exercise where you do hip lifts off the floor. Start by lying on your back and bending your knees. If possible, keep your feet flat on the floor. Squeeze the buttock muscles and lift your hips off the floor. Make sure your hips are in line with your body. You should feel the muscles in the buttock region and back of the legs activate. 
  • Heel Slides/ Knee Bends
    • Lay down or sit and slide your heel along the floor surface to as far straight and bent as you feel comfortable doing. Work on bending your knees a little more each time.

Tips for Making Exercise Easier

  • Make it social. Attend a class or bring a friend who can help you keep motivated. 
  • Find small ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, choose a parking spot a short distance away from your final destination, or perform Sit to Stand exercises as described above. Small activities can help you to spread activity throughout the day. 
  • Try something different. Unmotivated by your current exercise options? Sign up for an exercise class for something you’ve never done before like yoga, water aerobics, or Tai Chi

“You shouldn’t be afraid to experiment and try new things,” Sirek said. “You are encouraged to start slowly at first to see how their body responds and then make adjustments little by little.”

At the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, we’re here to help support you on your journey to finding the exercises right for you. Should you need any guidance or have concerns about orthopedic pain or discomfort, don’t hesitate to reach out to the OHOW team. Our group of talented physical therapists and orthopedic experts are here to help you feel as strong and healthy as possible.