Walking for Exercise Eases Knee Arthritis in People Over 50

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
July 9, 2022
Walking for Exercise Eases Knee Arthritis in People Over 50

Do you struggle with knee pain? If you do, you know the problem is more than just pain. When your knees hurt, you can’t move very well. And your ability to perform daily activities, including walking, are compromised. 

Knee pain can be caused by a wide range of issues, but there’s a pretty good chance it’s knee osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the U.S., affecting 32.5 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 14 million of these Americans have knee osteoarthritis. The prevalence of knee osteoarthritis as has doubled since the beginning of World War II, according to Science.

The condition is associated with aging and wear-and-tear on the body. It occurs when cartilage – the connective tissue between joints – wears away, leaving the cartilage rough around the edges and less cushioning between bones. When bones rub on other bones, painful bone spurs can develop. 

If your pain is osteoarthritis, your doctor may advise to: 

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers 
  • Lose weight
  • Wear a brace
  • Go through physical therapy

Or maybe, start a walking program. Walking has been found to reduce knee pain among people 50 and older with knee osteoarthritis. It also may  slow the damage that occurs in the joint, according to a study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology

A research team led by Baylor University tapped into the Osteoarthritis Initiative, an11-year cohort study on knee osteoarthritis. They examined data of 1,000 adults aged 50 and older with knee osteoarthritis who were classified as walkers based on self-reported frequency of walking for exercise. The goal was to see if walking for exercise eased or worsen symptoms of knee osteoarthritis such as pain and knee structure.    

Researchers found that participants who walked for exercise had decreased their chances of new frequent knee pain by 40 percent, compared to non-walkers. After four years, 37 percent of participants who didn’t walk for exercise experienced frequent pain, whereas 26 percent of walkers for exercised reported frequent pain. 

“Walking has many health benefits, several of which can help ease knee arthritis,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP.

Walking and Knee Arthritis

Walking contributes to knee health by helping:

  • Strengthen muscles, which act like a brace around the knee, helping to support it and alleviate pressure, strain and pain. 
  • Burn calories, which help you lose weight. Generally, a brisk walk falls between 3 and 4 mph. If you weigh 150 and walk at 4 mph for 30 minutes, you’ll burn around 170 calories. Factors such as gender, age and body composition can alter the number of calories burned. Burning additional calories can eventually lead to weight loss. Losing as little as 10 pounds can decrease the progression of your knee osteoarthritis by 50 percent, according to Cleveland Clinic. Because your hips and knees bear most of your weight, excessive weight can wear on cartilage, causing joints to stiffen, swell and ache.
  • Boost range of motion, which can ease stiffness and pain.
  • Increase circulation to knee, which delivers nutrients and oxygen to the knee, keeping the synovial membrane healthy. Synovial membrane is a layer connective tissue that lines the cavity the knee joint, tendon sheaths and bursae and makes synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint. And when weight bears on cartilage, water is forced from it; when the weight is lifted, the water returns bringing with it oxygen and nutrients. Good circulation is important to remove old, damaged cells and debris from joints.
  • Possibly repair joints, which might include cartilage. Some studies suggest that exercise can activate the genes involved in rebuilding cartilage. Too much exercise can have the opposite effect, which is why walking is considered an appropriate activity for knee osteoarthritis. 

“Walking is a low-impact activity that doesn’t place much stress on knees,” says Kaminetsky. “And walking programs are easy to begin and sustain. You don’t need a gym membership or a trainer – just a good pair of walking shoes and prior consent from your primary care physician.”

Walking Programs

Your first step starting a walking program is understanding your target heart rate. Once you know the safe range for your heart rate, figure out how you’ll track it. Invest in a fitness trackers that includes a heart rate monitor, do a talk test and or use the Borg’s Scale/Rate of Perceived Exertion.

Next, learn proper walking mechanics. Walking with poor posture or gait could exacerbate arthritis pain and potentially lead to other musculoskeletal issues. 

Once you understand the intensity range for working out and proper walking technique, you can begin a walking routine. Exercise routines include a warmup, workout and a cool down. Warmups and cool downs should last between 5 and 10 minutes. You don’t need to do anything special, just walk at a slower pace.

If you’re new to walking, start slowly, preferably on a flat surface. However, to reap the benefits of walking for knee osteoarthritis, you need to slowly progress to a brisk speed, which many fitness experts define as between 3 and 4 mph. Try walking several days per week for at least 20 minutes, while staying within your target heart rate zone. With the warmup and cool down, the workout will be 30 minutes. 

If your heart rate rises too quickly or you don’t have the stamina for 3 mph or 20 minutes, walk slower for shorter periods of time, gradually increasing the speed and adding a few more minutes onto the workout each week to eventually reach the full 30 minutes. Track your target heart rate, as well as how your knee feels and adjust your workout accordingly. 

“If you’re an advanced walker and need more of a challenge, talk to your doctor,” Kaminetsky says. “As long as your cardiovascular system and knees can handle it, your doctor might suggest walking faster, longer, uphill or on an uneven surface such as sand.”     

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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