I am a regular on The Survival Podcast as an expert on health, finance, and life simplification. Below is the transcript of my answer to a listener question on how to work out when you have bad knees.
Listener Knee Question:
I’m 55 years old and have had bad knees since I was about 10. (This is what happens when you and your friends think they are Spiderman and can jump 15 feet from a treehouse multiple times a day.) I’ve had multiple knee operations. Doctors told me as a teenager that I would be using a cane by the time I was 30. I’m not. I can get around pretty good and don’t have a whole lot of pain thankfully but my knees grind terribly when I kneel down or stand up or even just get up out of a chair. I have made a big change towards a paleo diet and wanted to exercise as well so I started walking every day. After 2 weeks of walking about 2km per day, I could hardly stand up.
If I could afford it I would go to the gym and ride a bike or use a rowing machine but that is not an option at this time. Can you please suggest any ideas that would allow for me to get a good cardio workout at home without ending up all crippled up?
Gary Answers How to Work Out with Bad Knees
Hey, everyone. I’ve actually gotten this question from some people in the past, who have bad knees, and bad backs. I have both, so I have a little bit of personal knowledge into this dilemma.
Now, Jeff has had chronic knee conditions from a young age of jumping long distances, off high things. I did that as a kid, too. Had multiple knee operations, and since he’s gotten into the paleo‑primal lifestyle, walking has basically been very, very painful, and is asking, “What kind of cardio can you get if you have very bad knees?”
Here’s the thing I want to talk about. First, the primary injuries for obese people are back and knee injuries. These are kind of like the injuries that are almost destined for people to get into obesity, because of the way we eat, our lifestyles.
But if you eat paleo, live the primal lifestyle, you can still maintain a healthy weight, even though you may not be able to get the cardio that you want. Now, the problem Jeff relays is that he has limited resources, very limited. I run into this problem a lot. He indicates that he can’t go to the gym to ride the recumbent bike, use the row machine, use the pool, because he can’t afford it.
He’s basically eliminating all of my fixes. What I will do first is, I will talk about some of the things he can do, and then I’m going to talk about some other things not related to his injuries that I think we all need to think about in order to be healthy.
The problem is, with his limited resources, I would recommend a bike that you peddle with your arms. They make them, the problem is they’re not cheap. They’re kind of expensive. You sit in them, and you actually peddle him with your arms. These are made for paraplegics, people who have lost the ability to use their legs.
They’ve been around a long time. There’s numerous manufacturers, but again, they’re not cheap. Jeff may want to look and see if there’s a local charity or church that maybe could help donate a bike to him, that he could use. If he can’t ride, I’m wondering, I don’t know, but I would also recommend a normal bike.
That’s what I do. I have not ran, or jogged since my late to mid 30s. I couldn’t do it anymore. My back was destroyed, multiple surgeries, my knees are messed up. I have nerve damage. I’m a mess, but I still do the best I can, and I still live the primal lifestyle, and still keep in shape. I just work around these limitations.
What he can do, that is very cheap, in order to get his heart rate up, and to get some cardio, I would recommend, and this is what you can do with different workouts in general. You can turn a normal resistance workout into a cardio workout, and the way you do this is by changing the pace.
That’s what a lot of people do. They get into their workouts, and they get into Groundhog Day. It’s the same thing over and over, but actually you can do the same work out, and change the pace. You can change the reps. You can change the weight. That completely changes the workout, and helps you to not get stuck in a rut.
I’d recommend, if he’s doing any sort of resistance training, speed it up. What you do is you add more reps. Say you’re doing 6 to 8, 8 to 10 reps. Move that up to 13 to 15, 15 to 18 reps, maybe even 20 reps. High‑speed, you go faster, so you do the exercise more quickly. What you do is you shorten the rest period in between sets.
On average, you’ll take a rest, and this is what I do with clients and myself, 30 seconds to a minute between sets. What you do is you’ll cut that down to 10 to 15 seconds. What this will do is it will turn your resistance training into a cardio workout, such as, I’ll give you a perfect example.
This is one that gasses me, and I’ve been doing this one for years. I do a circuit training of pull‑ups, dips, and push‑ups. I do air squats, but obviously Jeff cannot do those, so if he was to do pull‑ups, dips, and then do some push‑ups and abs in there, I throw abs in. You do this circuit without rest. You continue to do this circuit.
I do it for 8 to 12 repetitions. Trust me, you will be pouring sweat, and be gassed. With this, he has put no pressure on his knees, but he’s got pretty close to a whole body workout. Now, he says that he tried walking for two weeks, and he was almost crippled afterwards.
Here’s the thing. If you haven’t walked, and I find this with clients, too, who have been out of exercise, or haven’t exercised for decades. I always start them off with walking. The first complain I usually get back is, “Oh my God, my legs are killing me, my knees are killing me.” Yeah, you haven’t used those muscles in a long time.
All the tendons, ligaments, the muscles, everything’s got to adapt, and strengthen around the joints, and adapt to that exercise. If I was him, what I would do is cut back to walking. Don’t walk as far, and maybe walk every other day, and see if that helps. After you walk, ice your knees for five minutes, and then put a heating pad on for 10 to 15 minutes afterwards.
Try that first. Now, another exercise he can do that is cheap is he can go get ropes. These are popular in boot camps, gyms will have them. You’ll see the ropes, they’re these big, heavy ropes. What you do is you go berserko with your arms. You can do one at a time, you can do two, you can cross. There’s a bazillion rope exercises you can do.
You can use varying degrees of rope. You can double up a rope if you only have a small one, and doing rope cardio will gas you. I mean, it gasses you quick. It’s all upper body, because you’re using your arms primarily. It’ll strengthen your core. The thing is, in order to do it, you usually have to get into a partial squat, and I don’t know if that’s something Jeff can do.
Let’s go past that, now that we’ve established some things that he can do to get a cardio workout. He says that he doesn’t have the financial resources to afford to go to a gym in order to ride a recumbent bike, a stationary bike, be able to use a row machine, even use a pool.
Walking in a pool, for people who have bad knees, is amazing. They do far better, because it takes a lot of their body weight off their knees. Here’s the deal. If you’re at a point in life where you can not figure out how to afford 30 to 50 bucks a month to improve your overall health, you need to re‑analyze what you’re doing in life.
I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I hear these excuses all the time. “I can’t afford to eat healthy. I can’t afford to join a gym.” But these people have nice cars, $70,000 diesel pickups, big screen TVs, cable, cell phones. They have all this other stuff, but gosh darn, they just can’t afford that dang food, and that gym membership.
Now, I don’t know Jeff’s situation. That’s why I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but you have to be able find the money, if you’re concerned about your health. Heck, there’s gyms that are 15, 20 bucks a month, that are ran by churches. There’s places to go. There is used equipment you can find.
You have to re‑analyze what your priorities are in life, in order to afford things that are going to improve health, longevity, happiness. With that being said, that hits a common theme that I deal with clients all the time. “Oh, I can’t afford it, I don’t have the time.” BS.
Every time I analyze their lifestyle, and what they’re doing, I find plenty of time, and I find plenty of money, usually. That being said, I hope this helps, because chronic knee conditions are becoming more and more common, especially for people who were into athletics early on, or had injuries and/or genetic defects.
I’ve always talked about this, too, as far as exercise. That’s an excuse I get all the time, too. “Hey, I have all these injuries. I can’t possibly do any of this stuff.” Well, unless you have no use of your arms or legs at all, there is no excuse. I have pretty terrible injuries. I had multiple surgeries, but I still find ways to work around it.
You do what you can do within the capabilities, and the limitations of your body, plain and simple. Again guys, if you have any more questions, hit me in the comments section. Thanks a lot.