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.

High-impact exercise like running or aerobics can stress your knee joints when you have bow legs. This can increase your risk for knee osteoarthritis, which wears down the cartilage. It can also increase the risk for patellofemoral pain syndrome, where the kneecap rubs the end of the thighbone.

If you have bow legs, you can take steps to make exercise more comfortable. You can even use exercise to help improve your condition.

This article discusses the challenges and benefits of exercise when you have bow legs. It also covers tips for how to exercise safely, and how your healthcare provider can help.

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 structures in your knees. While this will occur with common activities such as walking, the stresses are magnified with high-impact exercise like running.

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

Compressing the inside of your knee joints may cause pain or increased wear and tear of your medial meniscus. This cartilage 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, which is a tear in the cartilage. It can also cause medial joint arthritis, located in the inner part of the knee.

Recap

When you have bow legs, the outer part of your knee joint can have a gap, putting stress on the ligaments. The inner part of the knee joint is compressed and can cause knee issues like a meniscus tear.

Movement and Force

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

Some research indicates athletes with bow legs have an increased risk of Achilles tendonitis, an injury in the tendon near the heel. This may be due to increased rotational forces that happen 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.

A bow-legged runner is more likely to supinate their feet and ankles, with the ankles rolling outward and the soles turned inward. This places stress on the outer edge of the foot and the smaller toes. Shoe inserts or orthotics (medical devices placed in shoes) might be recommended to correct this.

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

Recap

Bow legs can cause issues with the hip and ankle joints as well as an increased risk of Achilles tendonitis. If you walk and run on the outer edge of your feet, you might need shoe inserts to correct it.

Benefits of Exercise for Bow Legs

Exercise is an important part of maintaining your overall health. Having bow legs shouldn't prevent you from exercising. Many people who have bow legs are able to function and exercise without pain or problems.

By taking care of your knees and exercising properly, you may even prevent problems. For instance, stretching and strengthening your hips and legs will help keep your knees healthy.

Exercise can help you manage your weight, which can help prevent joint problems. 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, which is sensing your body's movements. This may improve your function in your daily activities and possibly help prevent falls.

Some research has found that corrective exercise can decrease the amount of space between your knees when you have bow legs. You may wish to add these corrective exercises to your routine, as discussed below.

Recap

If you have bow legs, exercise can benefit your joint health by helping with balance and strengthening your legs. It can also help prevent joint problems like osteoarthritis, particularly if you are obese.

How to Exercise With Bow Legs

If you have bow legs, you can still exercise. You may want to choose lower impact exercises. These are less likely to lead to future knee problems.

It's important to work on exercises to keep your legs and knees in alignment. Physical therapists call this neuromuscular training, which helps improve body movements and stability.

A physical therapist can work with you on exercises to help correct bow legs and improve balance. They can also suggest activities that are low-impact to help protect the knees and modify exercises to make them safer.

Exercises That May Help Correct Bow Legs

Exercises to stretch hip and thigh muscles and strengthen hip muscles have been shown to help correct bow legs. They may also help to decrease injury risk.

Exercises that may help improve genu varum include:

Exercises for Improving Balance

Research indicates you may have slight balance impairments if you have bow legs. Therefore, you may wish to add balance exercises to 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: Exercising while using a BOSU balance trainer, a platform on top of a round dome
  • Balance board or BAPS board: Standing on boards that wobble to help improve balance

Before starting any exercise program, check in with your healthcare provider and physical therapist. They can help make sure your exercises are safe for you to do.

Choosing Safe Activities

Exercises that have a lower impact or no impact will better preserve your knee health. They can limit the amount of force through your knee joints and prevent wear-and-tear problems.

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.

Recommended
  • 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 improve your knee position and minimize your risk of injury.

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. Keep your knees over your toes.
  • Wear shoes that will give the proper amount of support.
  • 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 an injury, check in with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.

A medical professional can help ensure that you are exercising properly if you have bow legs. 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 how the joints and muscles work together. Your PT can assess your legs and tailor an exercise program that is safe and effective for you. They can also suggest modifications to help prevent pain.

Braces and Orthotics

Your healthcare provider may recommend shoe inserts, 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. This is a shoe insert specially crafted to correct the way you walk.

Corrective braces are more commonly used for children with bow legs who need intervention. These include a modified knee-ankle-foot device 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. They can give you advice on whether a brace would help your problem or make it worse.

Recap

If you have bow legs, a physical therapist can help make sure you're exercising correctly. They can help you develop an exercise plan that's safe and effective for you. Your doctor may also suggest orthotics to help correct any issues with walking or running.

Summary

When you have bow legs, exercise can be challenging, but it can also help improve the health of your joints.

Because bow legs can alter your knees' structure, it can affect how your legs move. This can lead to an increased risk of knee, hip, and ankle issues. You may also have more problems with balance and stability.

Exercise may help you to avoid some of these joint issues by strengthening and stretching your hips and legs. Certain exercises may even be able to improve your legs' alignment.

Your doctor or physical therapist can give you advice about exercises that would be safe and effective for you.

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. Speak with a medical professional to get started on the right exercise program for you.

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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