Cardio/aerobic exercise is key to a healthy heart, normal weight, overall fitness and, of course, great legs but what do you do when your "great legs" include weak or injured knees?  The Mayo Clinic reports one in three Americans over age 45 have experienced knee pain resulting from an injury, such as a ruptured ligament or torn cartilage, certain medical conditions, including arthritis, gout and infection.  That doesn't give you a free pass on exercise.  Studies show that strengthening exercises help prevent knee injury and careful exercise, even cardio, is beneficial for everyone.  It also helps keep the weight off - a major stressor for knees.

Follow the rules of knee protection. 

1. Strengthen the muscles that support the bones, ligaments and cartilage surrounding the knee-joint.  The Mayo Clinic recommends building up quadriceps and hamstrings. Try knee extensions, hamstring curls and leg presses to strengthen these muscles. Balance and stability training helps the muscles around your knees work together more effectively.  Tight muscles can lead to injury, so stretching and include flexibility exercises in your workouts.  Before you attempt weight machines on your own, get the advice of a qualified fitness expert.  Improperly using weights and weight-machines can be a fast ticket to injury.

2. Avoid bending your legs during exercise to the point where knees extend past toes. That puts pressure under the kneecap, leaving it vulnerable to injury.

What cardio exercises are safe for "bad" knees?

1. Jogging on a smooth surface.  Running (especially on trails, hard or uneven terrain) might be rough on tender knees,.  Gentle jogging however, on a paved level surface, treadmill or track can be ideal.  If it hurts, slow down to a walk.  Ask your physician, qualified fitness expert or physical therapist about knee supports and straps.

2. Swimming is the ideal no-impact cardio exercise, providing a total body workout with no risk of damage to joints and bones.  Avoid the butterfly stroke if you have a history of knee pain or injury.

3. Walking at a brisk pace can get your heart beat up to an aerobic level similar to running or jogging but without the jarring impact.  Smooth, level surfaces are gentlest to knees but gradual inclines are worth working up to.  Over time, your knees may be strong enough for hiking.  Avoid sudden stopping and starting, pivoting and over-flexion.

4. Biking is another safe option for knees because it allows smooth flexion and extension, minimal impact and a great cardio workout.  Have your bike "fitted" professionally to make sure your seat is at the right height to keep pressure off your knees. Stationary and recumbent bikes are even gentler. 

5. Elliptical Trainers offer a great cardio workout with similar safety advantages for knees as stationary bikes and treadmills but with the added benefits of an upper body workout.  You can move both forward and backward and choose varying workout intensities.