Fitness experts spend a lot of time talking about strengthening your muscles and protecting your joints. What you don’t hear a lot about is cartilage: a tough yet springy connective tissue that acts as a shock-absorber for your joints. (It’s not just in your ears, folks.) To keep your body moving and grooving—whether that means swimming, hiking, biking, or running—physical therapist Aaron Keil, PT, says you’ll need to learn how to strengthen your knee cartilage, one of the most important stretches of tissue in the body.
“There are different types of cartilage depending on what part of the body you’re talking about. But in regards to the joints that bear weight, like your knees, or hips or ankles, the main function of that cartilage is to absorb shock or force,” says Keil. Movement patterns that repetitively place weight on the knee joint—like running or weight lifting—bring cartilage gains. But the goal isn’t just strength. “Similar to a car, your joints require a lubricating fluid called synovial fluid,” explains Keil. “And the way that that gets produced, at least in part, is through stimulating the cartilage. So shock absorption and lubrication are two main functions of cartilage.”
If you’re skipping out on cartilage day in your home gym, your knee joints won’t be as strong and lubricated as they could be—and that could lead to injury or arthritis. Fortunately, Keil says that many of the strength training moves and cardio bursts you already love fortify the cartilage in your knee joint—with one caveat. “The rules are a little bit different for a knee that’s damaged. Meaning, exercises that would normally produce cartilage health may not apply if the knee has been surgically repaired or something like that,” says Keil. If that sounds like you, it’s best to work with your physical therapist or doctor to find out whether exercises for cartilage are the right choice for your body.
How to strengthen knee cartilage with exercise
1. Run, run, run
Running has a bad rep for damaging your knees, but a new small study published Thursday in the Peerj challenges that long-held belief. A study on 22 young adults found that running actually induces a “cartilage conditioning” process that fortifies the connectivity tissue in your knee. So it might be time to get running if you’re not already collecting miles.
2. Drop into squats
Keil names squats as another move that places a load on the knee joint and prompts that cartilage to grow. To complete a squat, bring your feet hip-width apart and sit back so that your thighs come parallel to the ground. Only go as far as you can without rounding your back.
To make the most of your squats, Keil recommends switching up the style. Try sumo squats or jump squats to really keep your knee joints guessing.
3. Do some lunges
Squat variations abound, but Keil says you can start helping your knee cartilage with the most basic version. Step one leg back so that both legs form a 90-degree angle. Make sure your knee’s directly above your ankle and your core is engaged. Step your back foot forward and switch sides.
4. Try side lunges
Now let’s move laterally with those lunges. Pour your weight into your right foot and step your left foot to the left as you push your butt backward. Keep your back straight. Use the power of your right leg and glute to bring your left foot back to center. Repeat on the opposite side.
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