Strong muscles—the body’s prime movers and shakers—are also its critical shock absorbers, cushioning the lower back, hips, knees, and ankles from injury and arthritis. The No. 1 predictor of arthritic knees is weak thigh muscles, says Scott Hamersly, MSPT, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Indianapolis, Indiana. He urges everyone to make a daily habit of the easy exercises shown below for healthier joints, overall fitness, and better balance.
“Most people don’t realize that almost everything we do throughout the day—walking, getting in and out of a car, using the stairs—is on one leg,” notes Hamersly. “Taking a couple minutes each day for balance and flexibility exercises pays off with better function and less pain—and it might even keep bone surgeons and physical therapists out of your life.” Always use a sturdy chair, railing, or other nearby surface for support and safety.
Photos by Perry Reichanadter
1. Lift Off
Sitting on the edge of a firm chair or table, straighten knee by lifting foot out in front of you. Work up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions with each leg, once daily. Then, add weight to the ankle with a purse, bookbag, or 1-pound bag of rice or beans—even a grocery bag holding a gallon of milk. Strengthens the four large muscles on the front of the thigh.
2. Arch Up
Each morning, lie face-down on the floor or bed. Place hands near the shoulders and press up with your hands. Hold 5-10 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10 times.
During the day, stand and bend backwards 1 or 2 times every hour while gently pressing hips forward with your hands. Extending the back helps offset hours of hunching over in our offices, cars, and easy chairs.
3. Stand Firm
Stand on one leg for as long as possible. Repeat with other leg. Beginner level: hold onto a chair. As balance improves, use two fingertips, and then one. Advanced: stand on one leg with eyes closed, barefoot or on a pillow. Strengthens core, back, hip, leg, and ankle.
4. Straighten Out
Lean against a wall with back and neck straight. Tilt pelvis forward slightly to tighten abdominal muscles. Press shoulders back and hold. As you gain strength and flexibility, also place your arms (bent at elbow and raised to shoulder level) against the wall, press back and hold. Strengthens core and upper body.
5. Step Down
Steady yourself and stand on a large hard-backed book with chest out and shoulders back. Tap a heel on the floor and return to starting position. Work up to 20+ reps with each leg, once daily. Strengthens ankle, Achilles tendon, knee, leg, hip, and abdomen.
6. Step Back
Steady yourself and drop one heel off of a step. Hold about 10 seconds. Repeat with other heel. Work up to 1 minute, each side, 3 to 5 times a day. Strengthens calf, Achilles tendon, and ankle.
7. Press Back
Sit or stand against a wall with back and neck straight. Press the back of your neck toward wall and hold for 10 seconds. Strengthens deep neck muscles and improves posture.
8. Paint the Wall
Lie on your side and prop up head on hand. Place other arm at side with elbow bent 90 degrees. Tap hand to belly button. Then, rotate hand toward ceiling. Work up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions with each arm, 3 times a week. Advanced level: Add weight to the arm by holding a soup can, water bottle, or 1-pound weight. Strengthens the shoulder’s rotator cuff muscles.
9. Stretch Out
Sit up straight in a chair. Keep one foot on the floor and place the other on a firm surface in front of you. Hold for 1 minute. Then, repeat with other leg. Good knee extension improves control and strength of thigh and leg muscles.
10. Get Centered
Lie face down on the floor. Then, prop up body on elbows and toes. Keep neck straight and hold for as long as possible. Work up to 5 sets of 1 minute. Strengthens lower abdominal and shoulder stabilizing muscles.