Exercising When You Have Bow Legs

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Bow legs is a condition in which your legs curve outward at the knees and your feet and ankles touch. If you are bow legged, there is a gap between your lower legs and knees when your feet are together.

If you have bow legs and participate in high-impact exercise such as running or aerobics, or sports such as soccer, stress on your knee joint can increase your risk for knee osteoarthritis and patellofemoral pain syndrome. However, you can take measures to make exercise more comfortable, and also use exercise to help improve your condition.

Exercise fitness staying home workout woman exercising stretching leg muscles before yoga training. Fit girl working out in morning sunlight in living room of apartment house
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Challenges of Exercising With Bow Legs

If you have bow legs, there may be increased stress and strain on various anatomical structures in your knees. While this will occur with common activities such as walking, the stresses are magnified with high-impact exercise.

The medical term for bow legs is genu varum. It is the opposite of knock knees (genu valgus), in which your knees bend inwards.

Compromised Joints

Bow legs create a gap on the outer part, or lateral aspect, of your knee joint. At the same time, the medial or inside part of your knees may be compressed.

This gapping on the lateral aspect of your knees may place excessive stress on the lateral collateral ligaments. These strong structures connect your thigh bone to your lower leg bone and prevent excessive motion on the outside part of your knees.

Compression of the medial aspect of your knee joints may cause pain or increased wear and tear of your medial meniscus. This structure sits atop your shinbone and provides cushioning between your thigh bone and shin bone within your knee joint. Too much compression here may cause problems like a meniscus tear or medial joint arthritis.

Movement and Force

Genu varum may have an effect on how your hips and ankles move, too. You may face a slightly increased risk of problems in those joints while exercising.

Some research indicates that athletes with bow legs may face an increased risk of Achilles tendonitis. This may be due to increased rotational forces that occur at your shin during weight-bearing activities like running and squatting. By correcting or compensating for these forces, you may be able to minimize your risk of Achilles tendonitis.

A bow-legged runner is more likely to supinate their feet and ankles. This condition causes your ankles to turn outward excessively when walking and running. This places more stress on the outer edge of the foot and the smaller toes. Shoe inserts or orthotics might be recommended to correct this.

Some research also indicates that people with bow legs may experience more problems with balance, especially in a side-to-side direction. This may be due to changes in your center of mass due to altered foot and ankle and hip position that occurs with bow legs.

Benefits of Exercise for Bow Legs

Exercise is an important part of maintaining your overall health, and you should not let having bow legs prevent you from exercising. Many people have bow legs and are able to function and exercise without pain or problems.

If you take care of your knees and exercise properly, you may be able to prevent any problems with your bow-legged knees. Lower extremity stretching and strengthening your hips and legs will help keep your knees healthy.

Exercise can help you manage your weight. Being obese is an additional risk factor for knee osteoarthritis. If you are obese and have bow legs, your risk is five times higher than for obese people who don't have bow legs.

People with bow legs may need to focus some of their exercise sessions on improving balance and proprioception as they can be impaired by the condition. This may improve your function in your daily activities and possibly help prevent falls.

There is some research to support the claim that corrective exercise can be done to decrease the amount of space between your knees in bow-legged individuals. You may wish to add these exercises to your routine, as discussed below.

How to Exercise With Bow Legs

If you have bow legs, you can still exercise. You may want to choose lower impact exercises as these are less likely to lead to future knee problems due to a bow-legged alignment.

One of the most important things you can do is to work on keeping your legs and knees in alignment during exercise. Physical therapists call this neuromuscular training. There are exercises that can help correct bow legs and improve balance, activities that are safer choices, and ways to modify exercises to make them safer.

Exercises That May Help Correct Bow Legs

Exercises to stretch hip and thigh muscles and to strengthen hip muscles have been shown to correct bow-legged deformity. This may possibly help to decrease injury risk in bow-legged individuals.

Exercises that may help improve genu varum include:

Exercises for Improving Balance

Since research indicates slight balance impairments may be present in bow-legged individuals, you may wish to also incorporate balance exercises into your workout routine. Some good ideas may include:

  • Single leg standing: Standing on one foot
  • Tandem standing: Standing with one foot directly in front of the other
  • BOSU ball training: Using the BOSU balance trainer while doing exercises
  • Using a balance board or BAPS board

Before starting any exercise program, check in with your healthcare provider and physical therapist to ensure that exercising is safe for you to do.

Other Safe Choices

Exercises that have a lower impact or no impact will better preserve your knee health, as you are at risk of developing knee problems and pain due to your leg alignment. Limiting the amount of force experienced through your knee joints may help prevent wear and tear problems within your knees.

If you have lower leg pain already, you may wish to find non-impact exercises to do. You could try cycling or ​swimming as an alternative form of exercise. Balance and flexibility exercises, such as yoga, tai chi, and Pilates, can be beneficial as well.

  • Swimming

  • Cycling

  • Rowing

  • Yoga

  • Pilates

  • Tai chi

Not Recommended
  • Running

  • Soccer

  • Aerobics

  • Basketball

  • Tennis

  • Volleyball

Safety Tips

Keeping your knees in alignment during exercise may help to make improved knee position a permanent change in your joints and minimize your risk of lower extremity injury while exercising.

Tips include:

  • When running, make sure your knees remain right over your toes when landing on each foot.
  • When squatting, don't squat so deep that your hips go below your knees, and keep your knees over your toes.
  • Wear footwear appropriate for the activity that will give the proper amount of support.
  • As you may have increased foot supination, consult with a footwear expert or podiatrist to determine which type of shoe or insert will provide the best foot mechanics. You may need a prescription orthotic.

How Your Healthcare Team Can Help

If you have knee pain or have had a lower extremity injury, checking in with your healthcare provider or PT is a good idea before starting any exercise program.

One of the best ways to ensure that you are exercising properly if you have bow legs is to visit a medical professional. A physical therapist (PT) who specializes in orthopedic conditions is a good place to start.

Physical therapists are trained to examine patients as a whole; they look at the entire kinetic chain when examining someone with bow legs (or knock knees, for that matter) Your PT can assess your legs and tailor an exercise program that is safe and effective for you. They can suggest modifications to help prevent pain.

Braces and Orthotics

Your orthopedic healthcare provider or a physical therapist may recommend special shoe inserts or a brace or knee support in addition to a modified exercise program.

If you have bow legs and do high-impact activities such as running, you might be a good candidate for an orthotic, which is a shoe insert specially crafted to correct gait for your individual needs.

Corrective braces are more commonly used for children with bow legs who need intervention. These include a modified knee-ankle-foot orthosis worn both day and night.

Braces are not generally used to correct bow legs in adults. For adults, it is best to consult with your healthcare provider or physical therapist about whether a brace would help or exacerbate your problem.

A Word From Verywell

If you have bow legs, you can exercise. Your focus should be on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and doing exercises that are enjoyable for you. To keep your knees healthy, make sure some of your focus is on lower extremity stretching, hip and leg strengthening, and improving balance.

If your foot position is affected by your bow legs, you may choose to use an orthotic. Finally, if knee pain from exercise is limiting you, choosing non-impact exercises may be an alternative. Speaking with a medical professional is a good idea to get started on the right exercise program for your bow legs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes bow legs?

    Bow legs (genu varum) are normal for children under 2 but something that usually resolves by age 3 or 4. Some children get permanent bow legs due to conditions like Blount's disease or rickets, while adults can develop bow legs due to severe knee osteoarthritis (particularly if obese).

  • Can exercise make bow legs worse?

    While the benefits of exercise invariably outweigh the risks, persons with bow legs are at risk of further compromising joints and ligaments if they engage in high-impact activities that place excess pressure on the knees (as well as the hips and ankles).

  • What exercises are unsafe with bow legs?

    There are no hard and fast rules, but sports that involve a lot of running and/or jumping along with sudden changes in direction should be approached with caution. This includes soccer, tennis, football, volleyball, basketball, and long-distance running.

  • What exercises are safe if you have bow legs?

    Low-impact activities that place minimal stress on the knees, hips, and ankles are ideal for people with bow legs. This includes cycling, swimming, rowing, yoga, pilates, rollerblading, tai chi, and resistance band training.

  • Can exercise correct bow legs?

    It can help. Studies have shown that thigh and hip muscle stretches can improve bow legs if performed consistently and progressively. This includes hamstring, groin, and deep gluteal muscle stretches that help release tension at the point where ligaments connect to bones. Weight loss also helps.

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