8 Ways To Protect Your Knees, Because It's Never Too Early

One of my very first yoga teachers used to always say, "You can mess with the gods, but you can't mess with the knees." At the time it was nothing more than a joke to me and I didn't think much of it, only because I had never experienced a knee injury before. Two years later, however, I came to terms with just how true this parable is. I busted my right knee in a particularly intense weight training session in 2014 and it has never been the same.

I wish I could blame it entirely on that one moment, but I know that the damage had been stirring for a while. I was overexerting in all kinds of physical activity, from yoga to hiking, and I wasn't doing enough to recuperate after all the effort. Luckily, after months of treatments, my knee has been a lot better — but I'll never again underestimate how delicate that part of the body is again.

Most of us don't realize what kind of stress our knees are constantly in, so we often take them for granted. An intricate mix of tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and muscle, our knees are the most significant hinge in the human body. University of Pennsylvania orthopedic surgeon Nicholas DiNubile told WebMD that the knees "serve as your 'wheels,'" and if they're in bad shape, the quality of your life immediately declines.

When we're young, we don't put much thought into the condition of our joints. Hip and knee pains sound like the stuff only our grandparents have to worry about, much like dentures or falling in the shower when nobody is home. To an extent, that's true: Almost 25 percent of women over the age of 60 report recurring knee pain, according to a survey by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But we don't have to fall into that category if we don't want to. If we take precautions now, we can save ourselves some agony in the long run.

Here are eight ways to protect your knees.

1. Stretch Often

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In order for your knees to function in a safe space, the surrounding muscle groups have to be in good shape. Building flexibility will help with that, as it reduces pain and delays cartilage deterioration. So set aside a few minutes every other day to give your calf muscles and hamstrings some TLC. This might mean you try out Yin yoga, which is incredibly restorative for areas like knees and hips, or you make a list of stretches to do at home on your own.

Here's a good option: Lie on your back with your feet hip-width apart and your knees facing the ceiling. Extend your right leg straight up, foot toward the ceiling; use a strap or belt to hook around your foot, and slowly bring it toward your face until you feel the stretching sensation. If that feels comfortable, extend your left leg straight on the ground to dig a little deeper.

Another useful stretch is Reclining Hero Pose. Sit down on your knees and heels, separate your feet, and sit your hips down on the floor between your heels. If that's working out OK, slowly lower backward, one elbow at a time, until your back and head are resting on the floor. Use a pillow under your butt for some extra elevation.

2. Do More Strengthening Exercises

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Don't make the mistake of thinking knee exercises are only for retirees. Adding them into your exercise routine can do wonders for those sensitive joints in the long run. With sturdy muscle groups, your knees are able to twist and turn, move, and bend in much safer ways. You'll find a better balance between mobility and stability too, Dr. DiNubile says.

With one leg at a time, slowly step onto a bench or step that is between six and twelve inches high. Make sure your whole foot is flat on the surface before you rise up. Pick up small weights to give your quads a little extra fire. This simple exercise will firm up all the muscles around your knee — go slowly, though, to ensure you get the most out of it.

3. Correct Your Posture

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Most of don't even realize what our natural stance is, but if it's out of alignment, it could cause grief later in life. When you're on your feet, your knees should always be slightly bent; locking them puts too much pressure on the joints. You feet, hips, and shoulders should stack on top of one another.

Check in with how you're sitting too. Your knees should be a tad higher than your hips, and try to keep the legs at a 90 degree angle. This position puts the least pressure on the joints and ligaments, and it lessens the aches in your lower back that can appear if you sit for a long time.

4. Listen To Knee Pain

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You'd be surprised at how often I see students who have been hit with serious knee injuries, and later confess to have been ignoring the pangs they felt months earlier. Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine specialist, told WebMD that occasional discomfort is OK, but once your knee pain stops you from going about you life normally, you need to get it checked out.

I was silly in disregarding the constant ache in my right knee for almost a year. I even heard a faint ripping noise in it every time I would take a deep squat at the gym. Don't make this mistake yourself — the second your pain turns chronic, chat with a doctor about what's going on in that precious joint of yours.

5. Be Careful When You Do Yoga

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Yoga is often considered synonymous with restoration and healing. That doesn't mean, though, that it's injury-free. I've witnessed several people hurt themselves in a yoga class either because they were pushing themselves too hard or the teacher wasn't instructing correctly. So if you're a yogi, there are some things to remember if you want happy knees.

In postures like Warrior 2 and Crescent Lunge, make sure your front knee is tracking over your second toe, and your leg looks like a 90 degree angle. If you're balancing in Tree Pose, don't press your foot directly into the knee, as that will create unwanted lateral pressure. Instead, place the foot above or below the joint. Finally, when you're doing floor stretches such as Pigeon, flex your foot; this will prevent the ankle from sickling, which makes it less likely for your knee to be twisted out of alignment.

6. If You're A Runner, Mix Up The Surface You Run On

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You might have heard that running on grass is the best, and asphalt is way better than the sidewalk. But experts claim that it's actually best for runners to cross train, despite what we used to believe. Dr. Bob Adams, Chair of USA Track and Field's Sports Medicine and Science Committee, told Outside Online that using a variety of surfaces will keep your knees healthy and supple. Hit the trails one day, then go on the track the next.

7. Don't Forget Low-Impact Cardio

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If you're a lover of running and plyometric-type exercises, remember that your body can't take that kind of high-impact movement all the time. All the repetitive strain could land you in tendinitis land, an inflammation of the tendon that links bone to muscle. Toss in a session on the rowing machine, go swim a few laps, or hop on a bicycle to get your heart rate up. None of these cardio exercises require full body weight on your knees, which will give them a much deserved break.

8. Apply Heat To Your Knees & Massage Them

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When you've got some free time this weekend, prop up your legs and bundle your knees up in something warm, like a heating pad or thermal wrap. The heat will boost circulation in the joints and reduce aches and pains. Then treat yourself with a self-massage. Gently dig into the muscles around the knees to get everything loosened up. A quick rubdown will release the tension, allowing the joints to recover and regroup for whatever is next on the agenda.

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