Desire to exercise + bad joints = ?
January 7, 2006 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Desire to exercise + bad joints = ? . Should I try to find some kind of trainer or sports therapist? Should I look into some kind of machine (I'm considering rowing or eliptical), and if so what do I look for in quality machines? Should I just go to a gym for a few months, try some things on my own and see what feels good?

I used to jog, but I've been out of the habit for 3-4 years, and now my feet and ankles are troubled and going is just impossible. Hell, some days walking is painful. I need some kind of exercise, though, because I increasingly feel like crap and I'm getting fat and this does not bode well if I'm only in my early 30s.

For some reason I haven't figured out yet, the rowing machine seems most appealing to me, and so I'm sortof fishing for feedback on that, but I'm really open to any general advice.
posted by namespan to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Riding a bicycle is very low impact, though I don't know how much it could hurt your joints. Have you considered swimming?
posted by rhapsodie at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2006

I have the same problems with my knees from a car accident about 10 years ago. I mean, we're talking.... when I sit, I have to shift positions every so often or my knees start to hurt.

I tried a Gazelle, but it wasn't as soft on my knees as the company claimed. Now I have an elliptical and I feel the "burn" in my legs, not my knees. I HIGHLY recommend getting one.

A friend of mine recommended the rowing machine to me, but I haven't looked into it.
posted by damnjezebel at 2:13 PM on January 7, 2006

I have weird joints, too. What works for me at the gym are the elliptical machines, stationary bikes, swimming, free weights, and some weight machines (anything that puts pressure on my knees is pretty much out, though). Outside the gym, it's yoga, yoga, yoga. Talk to your doctor and/or a trainer first, though -- you don't want to blow out your knees or ankles by using a piece of equipment that's just not suited to your particular situation.
posted by scody at 2:18 PM on January 7, 2006

Go to a gym and try both. I've used both extensively; for about two years I used the rowing machine every day, and since then I've used the eliptical for whatever reason. They both have their strengths: the rowing machine is harder, it requires a fair amount of upper-body strength; the eliptical is more fun, and it lets you kind of dance around to your iPod.

I think the ideal would be to combine both with a little weight training.
posted by josh at 2:18 PM on January 7, 2006

Have you thought of swimming? It's great exercise for people with joint problems because it's non-weight-bearing.
posted by essexjan at 2:21 PM on January 7, 2006

I'd recommend joining a decent gym (a well-equipped Y would be fine) and trying out the various pieces of equipment; your own particular joints will react to different kinds of stresses idiosyncratically. Rowing machines are excellent for general aerobic exercise but they do put the ankle through quite a range of motion. Ellipticals are the best single piece of equipment for my messed-up knees, but see how they feel to you. Stationary bikes (upright or recumbent) work for most people.

Do not neglect strength training as well; that's at least as important as aerobic exercise in overall health, fat loss, and physical well-being.

And if you're having that much trouble with your feet and ankles, I think you should definitely see someone medical, regardless of when, how, or whether you start exercising.
posted by Kat Allison at 2:21 PM on January 7, 2006

Response by poster: Outside the gym, it's yoga, yoga, yoga.

You know, it's funny I didn't think of this, because I have a lot of acquaintances who love it and credit it with recovery from all kinds of things. But it may be because I feel like I'm too fat to be any kind of flexible. OK, I can see and briefly touch my toes, but to give you an idea, I now have developed enough of a belly that bending over to tie my shoes makes my gut feel all kinds of squished and I can't breath well in that position. Is yoga something that needs to wait for weight loss?

(Plus with funny joints the idea of funny stretches seems... threatening).
posted by namespan at 2:27 PM on January 7, 2006

Yep. Swimming. While very inconvenient as far as the hassel of changing clothes etc - it will help a great deal. I suffer from arthritis in my hands, shoulders, knees and hips - impact from years of boxing and running. When it really got bad in my late thirties I started swimming in the morinings instead of running. The difference was astounding.

The added bonus with swimming is it is also a light resistance exercise good for general muscular conditioning. All those little muscles you don't get to work any way else. Get Swimming for Total Fitness by Dr. Jane Katz.

And Yoga. It may not be aerobic but it is great relief to joint pain. Some people feel goofy doing it at first. But you get over it as the result are undeniable.

Any kind of good resistance exercise - using body bands, weights, kettle bells, even old school body weight helps strengthen joins. No matter what you should eventually start a resistance program. See personal trainer. It's worth it.

If your feeling out of shape then I'd start with basic body weight exercises you can do only two days per week on your own. Do that for a few weeks and you'll fell much better. Then maybe move to weights.

Personally I'd avoid purchasing any machine unless you can afford a really really good one - like a Nordictrak eliptical - and are already on your way establishing a regular routine. A machine will ikely end up in the garage sale pile after a few months. And you will feel stupid for spending the money. See a personal trainer FIRST. See what you need to do and get motivated first.
posted by tkchrist at 2:34 PM on January 7, 2006

I row for an hour once a week as part of my fitness regimen. It's great exercise; gets my heart rate up and I can burn 800ish calories (according to the rowing machine's display) rowing hard. I usually row around 15 km (again according to the computer). My legs, back, and forearms are usually fairly sore when I'm done. One thing I've noticed is that most people don't stay/ last on the rowing machines for more than ten or fifteen minutes; my rowing neighbors are constantly changing. If you're going to row, make sure you stay on for at least 25 or 30 minutes even if you have to go slowly at first and some dude next to you is rowing twice as fast on the hardest setting. Maybe knock out 5 km to start with at whatever pace is necessary and work up. Also make sure someone shows you proper form.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:41 PM on January 7, 2006

But it may be because I feel like I'm too fat to be any kind of flexible. OK, I can see and briefly touch my toes, but to give you an idea, I now have developed enough of a belly that bending over to tie my shoes makes my gut feel all kinds of squished and I can't breath well in that position. Is yoga something that needs to wait for weight loss?

I wouldn't think you need to wait to lose some weight to try it out -- I see folks of all shapes and sizes in yoga classes all the time. (I think the more advanced levels certainly require more flexibility and lean muscle, but not at the beginning level.) I have some flexibility issues as well -- I'm hyper-flexible in some ways, and not flexible in others (I've never been able to touch my toes without bending my knees, for example) -- and yoga's helped a lot.

I'd suggest looking for a beginning/intro level for hatha yoga at either a decent-sized yoga center or someplace like the Y.
posted by scody at 2:50 PM on January 7, 2006

Although you can always buy a machine (rowing machines are about $1000), I would recommend just getting a gym membership. You'll have access to all the gym's equipment and I find the gym to be a nice little part of my social sphere - on some of the free weights at least you can talk to people while you work out. Also, I think you'll find yourself working harder at whatever you settle on if you're surrounded by other people doing the same thing. I'm very competetive, so I'll row my ass off if one of the other rowers is going as hard as I am, but I know other people who just feed off the group energy and work harder.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:56 PM on January 7, 2006

Just to second what scody said, yoga has been great for my joint pain. If you think you're too out of shape, don't worry -- it's not all headstands and twisting your ankles around your head. There are lots of gentle poses that anyone can do. It's more about proper body alignment and stretching than being super-flexible. If you want to check it out before joining a class, you can try out a TV show -- there's "Yoga for Everyone" on PBS, or Denise Austin's "Fit and Lite" if you have cable.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:22 PM on January 7, 2006

I have arthritis in my knees that acted up last year ago when I was trying to train to walk a marathon. My physical therapist had me water walking, which was a surprisingly good workout, especially since I intended to go back to walking as my primary exercise. I did start adding swimming to get more upper body exercise, too. I LOVE the rowing machine at the gym (except for the fact that they've put it smack dab in front of the hated mirrored wall), but I find I do best when I break my workouts up between the rowing machine, the elliptical trainer, the bikes and the treadmill. I never did get back to the marathon training, though. (She also had me doing some weight training to build up the muscles in my knees to help support the joints. That and some balance/stability work. It all helped.) I too have a round body and have put of yoga because of it. Probably I should give it a try.
posted by redheadeb at 3:23 PM on January 7, 2006

Yoga is great for fat people as well as thin people and everywhere in between.

I have awful joints. However, I find most of the joint friendly exercises on machines to be boring, boring, boring. I ride a bicycle as it is pretty friendly to the joints plus the scenery changes and it is less boring than machines in a gym. You have to like being trapped with your own thoughts without external music, video or other stimuli though, unless you find a good group to ride with (you need your senses on the road to stay alive). It can also stress your knees, neck, elbows and wrists depending upon your riding style, intensity, bike fit, etc. Swimming is considered one of the best exercises for those with poor joints, and my experience bears that out. However, it involves trips to the pool, showers before and after, bad hair and other time consuming and PIA matters. In a few years I guess I won't have a choice, but for now I am out of the pool. Do not forget walking. Unless you need to burn serious amounts of calories, walking will give you good fitness without unduly stressing your joints and it is a weight bearing exercise, something that many other joint friendly exercises lack.
posted by caddis at 3:23 PM on January 7, 2006

There are millions of abandoned exercise machines in homes across the U.S. So trying equipment at a gym (a day, a week, a month) is really important. (A lot of gyms will give you a guest pass for a day, at no cost.) Similarly, before you buy something, use it - in the store - for at least twenty minutes. (Most salesfolks like to see potential customers using equipment; don't be shy; go there in exercise clothes.)

Generally, expensive is better (at least up to a certain point) - more solid, more likely to be used rather than abandoned. Check out Consumer Reports (or AskMetafilter pages, or pose a more specific question here) to decide what model you want. Anything under $500 is probably junk, in my opinion.

I prefer a recumbent bike; I think most stationary bikes are tough on people's backs after ten or twenty minutes, plus it's real easy to read while on a recumbent bike. My wife really likes elliptical trainers. Swimming is good if you have a gym with a pool that is close. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy that you'll keep doing.

As far as yoga, that's not (as much of?) a cardiovascular workout (you don't burn calories the way you do with an exercise machine), so it's perhaps something you might want to do in addition to a cardiovascular exercise. There are good yoga tapes, if you want to experiment a bit without going to a class.

Similarly, weights are good, but if you can only find time to do one exercise, cardiovascular is definitely best.

Good luck!
posted by WestCoaster at 3:31 PM on January 7, 2006

Riding a bicycle is very low impact, though I don't know how much it could hurt your joints.

If your form is good and the bike fits, none at all. If your form is bad or the bike doesn't fit, you can throughly trash your knees in a very short amount of time.

Riding with bad joints demands professional attention to fit and form. Your local touring-oriented bike shop is the best place to find help there. Avoid the race and mountain shops, who's specialties won't help.
posted by eriko at 4:21 PM on January 7, 2006

You are not too fat to do yoga. I'm always amazed at how much I can still do even when I get really heavy. One of my teachers was still teaching even when whe was way pregnant. She avoided certain poses and so can you. Do try to find a Hatha Yoga class for beginners, not one of the "all levels" classes where everyone works at their own level. A real beginner usually doesn't get enough attention in them. It's also much more comfortable when everyone is falling over and saying "huh?" "What?" "Is she joking?" Don't do the things that hurt your joints. Tell your teacher what's happening. There are often alternate ways of doing the poses.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:50 PM on January 7, 2006

I agree with the rowing and elliptical suggestions - josh and Derive... have good info on both; I can't do more than 20 min on the erg (rowing machine) anymore, and I'm young - so don't get frustrated that you tire out so early when you get started.

Also, seated leg extension exercises are great for knee problems. You can do them at home or the office without weights anytime - 10x3 a couple times a day. I had PT for my knees, and the whole regimen didn't do half of what unweighted SLE's did.
posted by sachinag at 5:57 PM on January 7, 2006

I was moving and sold a used Nordic track elliptical on Ebay, local pickup, for $40. Keep your eyes peeled. A recumbent bike will be less painful on the wrists and neck, but whatever you ride make sure it fits great. I saw a prototype piece of exercise gear that suspended the runner inside a wheeled cage, so they could flit along without putting undue weight on their knees.
posted by mecran01 at 6:13 PM on January 7, 2006

Think about doing Pilates for a few months before you get into anything hardcore or into Yoga - it gets your core in shape and helps prevent you injuring yourself (I have injured myself doing yoga). I do it every time I have knee surgery (an annual event). As a bonus it's reasonably cheap at ~$10/class. And I wouldn't worry about your weight, I'm skinny and I suck at Pilates while plenty of heavier people at my studio are advanced.
posted by fshgrl at 6:23 PM on January 7, 2006

Be careful doing seated leg extensions if you have knee problems! My PT says they are the cause of half the cases he sees.
posted by fshgrl at 6:25 PM on January 7, 2006

My trainer put me on a recumbent stepper with arms (kinda like this one). (I'm back on it now, five months after major back surgery, although at very much reduced intensity and speed.) It combines upper body and lower body work without putting stress on *any* joints. It's the machine that the physical therapists start knee/ankle patients on. They find it preferable to elliptical trainers as there is *no* weight on your lower joints. However, I don't know how easy they are to find at a gym that doesn't also double as a rehab clinic.

The PTs at my clinic also suggest walking *backwards* on a treadmill for their new knee-surgery patients. Pool work, not necessarily swimming, is also very good for knees and ankles (and backs).

Be careful with the SREs unless you *know* you're doing them right, and that there's nothing structurally wrong with your knees. My sister is a PT, and she's had a couple of people come in to her clinic with ligament damage exacerbated by improper SREs.
posted by jlkr at 6:39 PM on January 7, 2006

Aargh. I meant SLEs, but you know that.
posted by jlkr at 6:42 PM on January 7, 2006

Response by poster: If your form is good and the bike fits, none at all. If your form is bad or the bike doesn't fit, you can throughly trash your knees in a very short amount of time.

I like the idea of bicycling, and I've used it as a form of transportation in the past, but found it killed my arms and wrists. Maybe I need a better bike.
posted by namespan at 9:13 PM on January 7, 2006

Anything in the water should be easy on your joints. I know a lot of people try aqua-aerobics - even though it sounds kind of sissy, the water provides a lot of resistance and can be a great workout. If there's a gym near you that offers classes, maybe give some a shot.
posted by tastybrains at 10:02 PM on January 7, 2006

I really like my rowing machine a, Concept 2 erg. I first started using one at a university sports center about fifteen years ago and found it congenial so I didn't go out and choose it blind. As with all such things, different kinds of machine suit different people so you must try before you buy -- my wife hates my machine and goes to the Y to use their treadmills instead.

I noticed the hopping on and off the machine syndrome when I used to row at the sports center, but I find I can zone out and keep going with no real problem. The reason seems to be that people start a too fast a pace, it seems quite easy at first, and wear themselves out -- not an issue when you learn how to pace yourself. Of late I have been managing 5 days a week of around 40 minutes a time (less if I'm rushed, or not feeling up to it), averaging over 40km by their reckoning a week for the last few months. The power read out, in Watts, is accurate, but the translation to distance and calories, is a guesstimate -- though they give the formula they use and the results match the generally accepted estimates of calorie burn for rowing.

It's a good workout but gentle on my knees, which are sensitive so I understand the desire for low impact exercise. I find it actually helps my knees -- I think it's the stronger surrounding muscles and the repetitive but gentle use of their full range, though that's just my uneducated guess.

I was beginning to feel extra chubby and sluggish this spring which was when I went from using the machine probably about once a week or less, on average, to my current, virtuous several times a week regimen. I'm certainly a lot fitter and a month or two ago everyone started telling me that they had noticed I'd lost weight. As I don't weigh myself I have no idea how much difference in pounds, but it must be about four inches in waist measurement.

Over the few years I've owned it I've gone through periods of greater and lesser use, but never given up entirely, I'm sure I would have had cycles of gym attendance too, but a constant monthly payment, so I reckon I'm ahead financially at this point though it was a leap of faith to spend the seven hundred bucks up front that the machine cost at the time (they are now about $850 I think).

I had the strange notion that I would like rowing before I used the machine, as you say you have, and I was right; also, against my wife's inclination, I preferred buying the machine and using it at home, which has also worked out. But I did know that I like the machine before I invested the money."

If you think rowing might work for you, I definitely encourage you to give it a try; if it suits, the results might be just what you are looking for.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:51 PM on January 7, 2006

I like the idea of bicycling, and I've used it as a form of transportation in the past, but found it killed my arms and wrists. Maybe I need a better bike.
posted by namespan at 9:13 PM PST on January 7 [!]

This sounds like a bike fit issue. This can be a big issue on mountain bikes with their flat handlebars as opposed to the drop style on a road bike which give you multiple hand positions. Make sure your wrists are straight, not bent. Your elbows should be bent. For maximum aerodynamic efficiency you would want your bars really low. However, this is hard on your lower back as well as your arms and wrists. Given that you felt stress in both your arms and wrists it sounds like your bars might be a bit low putting too much weight on your arms. So many other things such as the seat position and seat to handlebar distance play into this. I would try to find a bike shop in your area which does bike fitting, and if it is a mountain bike style handlebar, make sure they have experience fitting those as many bike fitters seem to be centered around fitting road bikes. Regardless of whatever else you do remember the mantra - elbows bent, wrists straight.
posted by caddis at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2006

Response by poster: This is all great, folks. Thank you!
posted by namespan at 10:25 PM on January 8, 2006

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