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Cycling is one of the best forms of cardio for general knee health. Its low-impact nature makes it the go-to suggestion for many people when recovering from knee-related injuries.
But is cycling good for knee cartilage?
Research has found that cycling is an excellent source of exercise for cartilage health. Cycling strengthens the muscles around the knee, taking the stress away from the cartilage. The knee joint also responds positively to cycling’s fluid and non-weight-bearing characteristics.
In this post, I’ll take a look at the 17 most important facts that underpin why cycling is good for knee cartilage.
1. Weight Bearing Vs Non-Weight Bearing
Let’s start with a real biggie first.
The appeal of cycling for many people that have experienced knee cartilage issues in the past is that it is non-weight-bearing.
What does this mean?
A non-weight-bearing activity is one where the individual’s body weight is not supported by their legs. Some examples of non-weight-bearing activities include:
- Water aerobics
- Using a hand cycle
And, of course, cycling! In cycling, the weight of the individual is held up by the saddle.
This means that the legs, and knees, have one purpose – to move and power the pedals. There is no added strain on the knee joint through supporting body weight.
2. Choose Intensity – Go Through Gears
Another reason why cycling is such an excellent activity for knee cartilage health is that you choose the intensity and resistance of the exercise.
This can range anywhere from cruising down a slope, not moving the pedals at all, to vigorous cycling up a steep incline.
The important thing is that you are in control. You can listen to your body, and to what your knee feels like (if you have knee cartilage issues).
You can do any of the following:
- Increase the intensity of the resistance throughout a session
- Build up the frequency of your cycling sessions
- Build up the intensity of your sessions
This is in stark contrast to many other types of cardio. For example, with jogging, you have to go at least a minimum speed to even start. Cycling is different from this, in there is pretty much no baseline lowest speed and intensity.
3. Low Impact Vs High Impact
This is a huge one!
Cycling is a low-impact exercise. What does this mean?
Well, a low-impact activity is one that does not issue continuous jolts and jerks to a joint.
The opposite of this is a high-impact activity. Examples of high-impact exercises include jogging, skipping, and lunging.
When you jog, the knee joint is pounded in a repetitive manner. This causes long-term wear and tear, and can even cause more serious trauma.
Low-impact activities, like cycling, are much more gentle on joints. There is no jerking or jolting or impacts. Other good low-impact activities include:
- Water aerobics
4. Good For Cartilage Health
There has been research carried out that I found on the National Library Of Medicine website (Source) that found that cycling positively promoted knee ligament and cartilage health.
It particularly found that cycling doesn’t add too much strain to the ligaments and cartilage around the knee area while strengthening muscles also.
Also, damaged cartilage is able to be strengthened through cycling.
I found an excellent youtube video by Professor Doctor J Bellemans. In this, he states that cartilage can actually develop and strengthen through activities such as cycling.
He states that “Cartilage is strengthened by short bouts (10-15 min) of cyclic, non-impact, or soft-impact exercise, of moderate intensity and resistance, and with sufficiently long intervening resting periods.“
Cycling ticks pretty much all of these boxes – being cyclic, non-impact, and of moderate intensity and resistance. Here is that excellent youtube video in full:
Here is a table that demonstrates the kinds of exercises that are good for knee cartilage, and also some that are not so good:
|Is It Cyclic?
|Ability To Have Breaks?
5. Strengthens Key Muscles Around The Knee
Cycling is brilliant at strengthening all the muscles around the knee, and this really helps to cushion the knee joint.
There are four main muscle groups that are fully activated when you cycle and three of these are connected to the knee joint. These are:
- The quadriceps
- The calves
- The hamstrings
Cycling is able to strengthen all of these muscle groups through a form of resistance training. The resistance of the pedals works against the muscles and causes micro-tears in them. The muscles then rebuild and grow.
Having strong quads, hamstrings, and calves reduces the stress on the knee joint and on the knee cartilage.
6. Use An Ebike
Here’s a top hack now. For those really struggling with knee issues, or early in their rehabilitation from an injury, why not use an e-bike!
The beauty of an e-bike is that you can combine light pedaling with motorized movement. Pretty much all bikes have both a motor (that moves you automatically) and the option to pedal also. You can pedal with the lightest intensity that you like and still move around at a good rate.
Ebikes also have the option to turn off the motor, so later in your rehabilitation, you could potentially just ditch it altogether.
7. Easy Terrain Vs More Challenging
Of course, you have the choice of what type of terrain to cycle on, and having any knee cartilage issues may well impact this choice.
In general, the best type of outdoor terrain for knee health is as flat as possible. If you are concerned about your knees, then you want to cycle on paved surfaces or flat roads.
Try to watch out for:
- Large cracks or fissures
- Debris in the road
If you are cycling indoors, then this is not an issue. Indoor cycling is very smooth, and ideal for knee health. It is better to stay in the saddle, as standing cycling puts more strain on the knee.
8. Avoid Hyperextension
Cycling is very good at avoiding hyperextension as long as your bike is set up properly.
Hyperextension is where a limb is straightened too much and goes past the natural straight position. This puts a strain on ligaments and muscles which can have a knock-on to knee cartilage.
The issue to avoid with cycling is that your leg doesn’t get too straight (or go past the straight point).
To do this, you want to set up your saddle height so that your leg is somewhere between 80% and 90% straight at the lowest point of the pedaling motion.
This will ensure that your leg never fully straightens, and keeps that knee joint nice and healthy.
9. Knee Patients Are Often Referred To Stationary Bike By Physio
It is common for knee patients to be referred to exercise on a stationary bike as part of their rehabilitation.
This is because you are fully in control of the intensity of the exercise, as well as a whole host of other reasons that I have discussed (being low impact, etc).
10. Good Posture and Bike Size
It’s crucial to have good posture and bike fit to keep your knee health at its best possible level.
When cyclists suffer from pain in their knees, you will usually find that it is their posture or bike fit that is causing the issue.
With regards to posture, you want to be leaning forward in the saddle, with your back reasonably straight. Your arms should be more or less straight.
With regards to bike fit, probably the most important thing is to get the bike seat at the right height. You want your leg to be about 85% straight at the lowest point of the pedal revolution.
You can also adjust:
- The handlebars
- The saddle angle on some bikes
- How far or back the saddle is on some bikes
Poor posture or bike fit can lead to excessive strain and wear and tear on muscles and joints.
11. Arthritis Friendly
Cycling is one of the most arthritis-friendly activities and is often recommended by health professionals.
This is for all the reasons already discussed – being non-weight-bearing, low impact, and just generally kind to joints.
In general, activities to avoid if suffering from knee-related arthritis include:
- Jump rope
- HIIT aerobics
- And anything where two feet are off the floor simultaneously
12. Different Cycling Types (Under Desk etc)
You can use bikes in a range of situations.
As well as outdoor bikes, there is a range of stationary bikes you can try. All are good for knee health.
There are also more unusual options like an under-desk bike. These are good if you have a sedentary job, such as working in an office.
13. Lose Weight – Overal Benefit To Knee Health
Cycling is a fantastic cardio activity that can help you lose weight if you do it in sync with a healthy diet. Here is a table showing how many calories you can expect to burn while cycling (depending on your wegith and how fast you go):
|Calories Burned Over 12 miles
|Calories Burned Over 20 miles
As you can see, the amount of calories burned during cycling is significant.
But how does this affect knee cartilage?
Well, losing body weight means there is less force on the knee joint. This is particularly noticeable when the knee joint is under stress, such as when you are running, turning, or jumping.
Here’s a quick formula for all you math boffins out there:
Cycling + weight loss = better knee cartilage health!
14. Engage Core
Cycling promotes core engagement, without jerking or jolting the torso like many other activities. How does this protect knee health?
A strong core will aid posture and muscle alignment throughout the body. This puts a lot less strain on the knee joint, and on the knee cartilage.
15. Use Cycling Alongside Other Exercises That Are Healthy For Knees
Many people with knee issues are often recommended a rehabilitation plan that has cycling in it, alongside other knee exercises.
Here is a great video from Bob and Brad. If you’ve not seen them, they are the self-styled ‘Most famous physiotherapists on the internet.’ They have a range of great tips about all sorts of issues.
Anyway, here is a fantastic video of some strategies to employ if you have issues with your knee cartilage:
16. Warm Up Through Activity
I would definitely recommend warming up before you start cycling.
However, cycling is also an activity where you can continue to warm up as you engage with it. You can start on a really low intensity, and raise the resistance when your body feels warm and relaxed.
Cycling also warms up the synovial fluid in your knee.
This is the liquid that keeps the knee fluid and moving smoothly. Exercise actually gently warms it and helps it function.
17. Join Groups Of Like-Minded Individuals
One of the beauties of cycling is that it is a social activity, and it is motivating if you can share your cycling experiences with others.
If you have had knee problems, then you will often find fellow sufferers in cycling groups. There are many people that transition from jogging to cycling at some point because of knee problems, and you will often find them in cycling societies and groups.
This is just one of the many benefits that cycling can bring you!