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I hear many people say they are drawn to cycling because it is generally kinder to knees than many other forms of cardio. I’ve lost count of the number of my jogging friends that have made the transition to cycling.
In this post, I’ll consider all the research-based evidence for exactly why cycling is good for our knees.
In a nutshell, the 15 reasons that cycling is good for our knees are:
- It is low impact
- It strengthens muscles around the knee
- It is non-weight bearing
- You can start with light intensity and resistance
- You can cycle over smooth terrain
- It is arthritis friendly
- It helps engage your core
- It avoids hyperextension of your knee
- There are different bikes and cycling experiences
- It helps you lose weight
- Get your posture and set up right
- It works well for knee rehabilitation following an injury
- It is easy on the ligaments
- It supports the knee’s natural movements
- You can join groups with likeminded people
Let’s dive into the reasons a little more:
1. Low Impact Vs High Impact
Let’s start with the real biggie first. This is often the reason why people with knee issues are drawn to cycling in the first place.
Cycling is a low-impact activity. This means that there are minimal jerks or jolts on the joints, including the knee joint.
High-impact activities involve lots of repetitive pounding of the joints. For example, some activities that involve this include jogging, lunging, or HIIT. These activities involve continuous stress on joints like the knees, which can lead to long-term wear and tear and traumas.
Low-impact activities are kind to joints such as knees. During cycling, the knee joint is smoothly opening and closing within a certain spectrum.
If you’re not completely sure what the difference between low and high-impact activities is, then here is a quick table to show some popular activities and if they are low or high-impact:
|Activity||Low Impact||High Impact|
In a nutshell, the low-impact nature of cycling means it is good at developing cardio and muscle toning, while also being beneficial to your knee joint.
2. Strengthens Key Muscles Around The Knee
Another reason that cycling really aids knee health is that it helps to strengthen the muscles around the knee. This cushions the knee joint.
Three of the four major muscle groups that are activated by cycling are connected to the knee. They are:
- The quadriceps
- The calves
- The hamstrings
The only other major muscle activated significantly by cycling is the glutes.
Strengthening these major muscle groups really helps in
3. Weight Bearing Vs Non-Weight Bearing
They’re all big reasons on this list – but this is another massive one! One of the most important reasons why cycling is an excellent choice for long-term knee health is because it is non-weight-bearing.
What does that mean?
Well, on the flip side, a weight-bearing activity is one where the body weight of the individual is borne by the legs. For example, jogging is a weight-bearing activity, because your legs keep you upright during it and hold your weight.
Non-weight-bearing activities, as you can probably guess, involve the opposite. Your weight is held up by something other than your legs.
Some classic non-weight-bearing activities include swimming, rowing, and…of course, cycling!
In cycling, the weight of your torso is supported by the saddle.
This is great for your legs! It means that they don’t need to focus on balancing your body or supporting it. Their full force can go into powering the pedals.
It also means that you can go really light on the intensity if you choose.
4. Easy Warm Up – Go Through Gears
Cycling really is one of the most versatile exercises, and this is part of its great appeal.
One of the things that is good for knees is that you can ‘warm up’ as you go, and increase the intensity to suit you.
Many cycling experts recommend warming up before you get onto your bike, and I’m not going to disagree with them. (Source) But alongside this, I find that cycling is very much an activity where you continue warming up as you do it.
You can start at a very low intensity, and just keep switching things up as your muscles relax.
This is great for knee health for a number of reasons:
First, the synovial fluid in the knee actually warms up during exercise. This is the substance in the knee that keeps the movements fluid and stops cartilage from rubbing against other tissues. It actually is more fluid when it is warmed up, so works more effectively.
Secondly, you can go at a pace and intensity that suits you. If you are coming back from a knee injury, you can choose a very low resistance, and pedaling cadence to suit you.
This intensity can increase throughout the session, or over a series of cycling sessions.
5. Easy Terrain Vs More Challenging
You can really mix up the terrain you cycle on, and this will have an impact on how knee-friendly your ride will be.
The easiest type of cycling for your knees is cycling on smooth surfaces.
If outdoors, see if you can cycle on smooth concrete roads or paved surfaces. Try and look out for and avoid any of the following:
- Cracks in the road
- Obstacles such as sticks or stones
Cycling over these will cause jerks and jolts, and this will have some impact on your joints (though nowhere near as much as a high-impact activity).
Another fantastically smooth way of cycling is to use an indoor stationary bike. These are about as smooth as it is possible to be, so perfect for knee health.
If you are concerned about your knee joint for some reason, then sat-down cycling is usually best. Standing up and simulating hills becomes a weight-bearing activity, and so has much more of a strain on your knees.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind putting some stress on your knees, then cycling on hills or more challenging terrain will work for you.
Going up hills gets out of the saddle, and puts more weight on the knee joint.
Also, cycling on bumpy and uneven surfaces, such as trails or hills really adds to the level of impact on your knees.
Here is a quick table of different types of cycling and the level of impact to expect on your knees:
|Type of Cycling||Low Impact On Knees||Moderate Impact||Higher Impact|
|Indoor on a stationary bike – seated||X|
|Indoor on a stationary bike – standing||X|
|Cycling on a smooth road||X|
|Cycling uphill on a smooth road (out of the saddle)||X|
|Cycling on rough terrain||X|
6. Arthritis Friendly
Many older people take up cycling because it is recommended as being arthritis-friendly. (Source)
Some activities that are generally recommended for arthritis include:
- Walking in water
These tend to be non-weight-bearing and low-impact activities. Generally, stress on the joints is the last thing that you need as an arthritis sufferer.
Some activities to avoid when suffering from arthritis in the knees are:
- Jump rope
As a very general rule of thumb, anything that involves both feet being off the ground at the same time is not the way to go.
7. Engage Core
Cycling is an activity that engages the core positively, without the risk of overly straining it. Good cycling form and posture really help to engage the abs, and tone this area.
A strengthened core has many benefits, including:
- Improved posture
- Greater stability
- Reduction of back pain
- General prevention of injury (Source)
All of these add up in terms of the impact they have on your knees. Posture and stability in particular help to reduce strain and stress on the knees.
Back problems can lead to knee pain when people bend in unnatural ways. Strengthen that core and everything else follows!
8. Avoid Hyperextension
A common source of injury to the knees is hyperextension. This is where the leg is over-straightened, going past the vertical. This places a strain on the muscles and ligaments in and around the knee.
Hyperextension can occur in all sorts of high-impact sports that involve turning at speed, jumping, or running in different directions.
Cycling by its very nature completely avoids this issue.
When cycling, it is recommended that on the down-pedal, your knee should be somewhere between 80-90% straight (and certainly no more than 90%). This ensures that your leg is never fully straight, where it can run the risk of being hyperextended.
This keeps the muscles in your legs fully engaged, without placing any stress or strain on the knee joint.
9. Different Bike Types
These days there are so many types of cycles, and all of them promote positive outcomes for your knees.
There are stationary and spin bikes that are excellent for knees because of their smooth action.
But there are also other options, such as under-desk bikes for office workers. These are particularly good for those that have to sit all day at work.
Under-desk cycles are small exercise bikes that you literally cycle under your desk as you work. These are good for your knees in all the ways a normal bike is, for example:
- They strengthen the muscles around the knee
- They are low-impact and non-weight-bearing
Also, knees can be a troublesome area for some office workers. Many sitting employees may bend their knees beyond 90 degrees while sitting for long periods or sit with their knees crossed. Both of these are not healthy for long-term knee health.
10. Lose Weight – Overal Benefit To Knee Health
Cycling is a really good cardio workout, and this helps it to burn many calories per session. If this is allied with a good dietary regime, then cycling can be an excellent way of losing weight.
Here is roughly how many calories the average cyclist will burn while cycling, broken down into the respective weights of the cyclist and how far they are going:
|Weight||Calories Burned Over 12 miles||Calories Burned Over 20 miles|
This is a lot of calories! But how does this relate to knee health?
Well, lower body weight really helps our knees out a lot. Lower weight:
- Reduces the amount of downward force from our bodies on our knees
- Provides less trauma when we twist or turn
Our knees support our weight through most of our waking hours. The repetitive force of extra body weight through our knees really does add up!
11. Good Posture and Bike Size
One thing to get right is the size of the bike and your posture when you are riding it. Often any knee pain resulting from riding is because of one of these factors – so getting this right is key.
Regarding the size of your bike, there are several parts you can adjust including:
- The seat: you want your legs to be 80%-90% straight at their fullest extension on the down-pedal
- Your handlebars: you want to lean forward while riding and not too upright. Somewhere around 45% leaning forward feels right for many riders.
For your posture, the big one is to keep your back quite straight. A hunched back can put a strain on the lower back and hips, which in turn can have a knock-on effect on your knees.
Also, you want to engage your core.
12. Knee Patients Are Often Referred To Stationary Bike By Physio
One of the most common features of rehab sequences following injuries to knees (or hips) is to use a stationary bike. Even after pretty extreme operations, such as full knee replacement, a stationary bike will usually figure later on in the recovery period. (Source)
You should always take direction from your medical adviser. But, in general, some points to consider when cycling after a knee injury include:
- Start with very light exercise
- Only cycle for ten minutes at a time
- Listen to your body and stop if you feel any sharp pain
- Respond to how your knee feels, and increase the intensity of the sessions accordingly as you go
Here is a fantastic video from Bob and Brad, the self-styled ‘Most Famous Physiotherapists on the Internet.’ In it, they demonstrate how cycling can really help with different types of knee pain:
13. Easy On The Ligaments
In a study that can be found in the National Library of Medicine (Source), there was research into the impact of cycling on knee ligament health.
The findings were extremely positive surrounding the impact of cycling on ligament health.
The study found that one of the biggest advantages of cycling was that it developed quadriceps strength. Because you can choose your intensity, ‘The knee muscles can modify their forces. Therefore, by controlling the mode of cycling with varying seat heights and pedal positions, the ligaments can be relieved from these forces during the initial stages of the rehabilitative process.’
14. Cycling Supports The Knees Natural Movements
Although cycling is extremely repetitive, the movement that it provides is a really natural one for the knee joint.
The only force is going in a vertical plane. There are no sideways stresses involved on the joint.
Also, the knee is gently opening and shutting. It is only opening to about 80 to 90% and shutting to somewhere around 40% to 50%. This is well within its range of function and avoids either extreme.
The motion is fluid and smooth, so everything that the knee likes.
15. Join Groups Of Like-Minded Individuals
One of the great things about cycling is that it is a social activity! It often makes it so much more motivating if you are cycling as part of a group.
As part of a knee rehabilitation program, you may be referred to a cycling group by a medical professional.
In these groups, you may well meet others who have similar knee-related issues to yourself. It is great to compare stories, share your rehabilitation, and just interact with others on a similar journey to yourself.