So… how’s that resolution going? If you made an ambitious pledge to yourself this January, you’re in good company. Surveys show that new year resolutions are incredibly popular, despite what the gloomsters say about how easily people discard them. About one in four of us will have started one this month, and most of those resolutions will revolve around health.
From a knee perspective, that’s great. Any improvements you can make to your general fitness – whether you’re looking to rebuild after an injury or just aiming to feel generally fitter and happier – are likely to have a beneficial effect on the function and longevity of your knees, from alleviating joint pressure to reducing your risk of future problems like osteoarthritis. Studies show that even gentle activities like walking can trigger pain relief mechanisms in the brain, too.
So if you are on a fitness kick this month, how can you give yourself the best chance of keeping it up – and keeping your knees in trim? Here are some brief thoughts.
Start slowly, increase incrementally
One mistake people make with new year resolutions is to do too much too soon: leaping around the squash court after months of inactivity, attempting a 100-mile off-roader, trying to do the Couch to 5k in five minutes. This risks injury like few other things – it might be why we often see a spike in referrals to clinic after Christmas! A widely-held runners’ rule says you should only increase your mileage by about 10% a week. That sounds sensible. You could also consider starting with gentler activities that still get the blood pumping and your knees moving – like rowing or cycling.
Find your optimal bodyweight
We’ve mentioned the importance of weight on the blog before: when we take a step up or down stairs, the pressure on our knees increases six-fold. If we’re carrying extra bulk, that’s increasing the impact still further – which raises the long-term risk of cartilage wear and arthritis (not to mention a range of other health issues). A healthy body mass index (BMI) is usually considered to be around 18.5 to 24.9. You can check your current BMI with this calculator.
Strengthen your joint-supporting muscles
Regular stretching helps to keep the key muscles around your knees supple and strong. It also avoids the shortening and tightening that happens to muscle fibres that become rapidly weaker through underuse. That in turn reduces your injury potential. These kinds of exercises needn’t be complicated, either. They might be as simple as raising each leg from a seated position and holding it for 15 seconds – see this NHS runners’ guide for some good options (though bear in mind they’re not suitable for people with an existing injury).
Review your shoe condition
If you’re stepping up your health regime at the moment, don’t neglect your footwear. A good, well-balanced pair of sport shoes will provide support for your knees as well as your feet. Look for options like arch support, shock absorbency, flexibility, durability, ‘motion control’. If your old runners are starting to look like a dog’s beloved chew toy, now might be a good time to consider an upgrade.
Reassess your sleep routine
Sleep rarely gets a look-in when it comes to new exercise programmes. But there’s reason to think it should do given the enormous breadth of benefits, from increased energy and better mental health to improved immunity and reduced blood pressure. Sleep also triggers the release of growth hormone, which our bodies use to repair muscle we may have damaged during exercise. If you think your own sleep regime might benefit from an overhaul, these NHS-recommended apps might be worth a look.
Make it enjoyable
Talking of unkept resolutions, one of the surest paths to defeat is to start a regime that makes you miserable every time you do it. Perhaps it leaves you with a sense of achievement afterwards, but if you hated every active minute of it, will you really want to sustain the good work over the long term? You might instead think about mixing up your routines to include a friend (lockdown restrictions permitting), or getting a partner or your children involved. Or just prioritise the types of exercise you genuinely love. Better to go for regular easy walks rather than a few savage power-runs that leave you feeling exhausted, cross and wondering why you made that bet with yourself on New Year’s Day.