As Asians, sitting on the floor with legs folded comes naturally to us.
We also tend to like the full (deep) squat position. In countries such as India and China, people – even the elderly – use it to have conversations, eat, wash clothes, take photographs and do a whole lot of things.
Last week, I was travelling along the east-west highway and stopped at one of the rest areas as my seven-year-old niece wanted to use the toilet.
There were plenty of sitting toilets available, but the majority of travellers, young and old, were waiting in line to use the squatting ones.
Whether it’s a preference or they find it more convenient, one thing for sure is that their knees are pretty strong.
My niece, on the other hand, does not know how to use this type of toilet and refuses to learn because she thinks it’s unhygienic.
My former colleague, who was born and raised overseas for most of her life, couldn’t fathom the fascination Malaysians have for squatting toilets.
She used it once because the place she was at had no sitting toilets.
Her knees buckled while she was peeing and with no railing support to pull herself up, she (thankfully) fell backwards and not inside!
The manner in which she described the episode would make an excellent script for a comedy scene.
In reality, she just has weak joints and muscles from limited exercise.
Have you ever experienced this: You are able to sit on the floor with legs folded, but when you unfold them, there is a bit of stiffness at the knee joint?
Sometimes, it may take a few seconds/minutes of straightening the knees before you can stand up and walk comfortably again.
If you have, don’t despair – that’s a sign of ageing, but you can do something about it.
Ouch, my knee hurts!
As we age, due to the wear and tear of repeated motion, injury or disease, knee pain becomes a common complaint among older adults – although nowadays, with the lack of movement, knee pain is also rampant among young people.
A strong and healthy knee functions like a well-greased machine, allowing the human body to perform high-intensity activities like jumping, hiking and climbing, among others, without pain.
However, most people will experience some form of knee pain in their lives and many will find it debilitating.
Often, it is caused by osteoarthritis (the wearing away of knee cartilage), which leads to loss of function and joint weakness.
The knees absorb a huge amount of pressure with every step you take daily. If you’re overweight, the pressure is increased.
Over time, the muscles and ligaments surrounding the knee joint get weaker and the pads of cartilage called menisci that act as shock absorbers, start to deteriorate.
When the cartilage wears off, the bones rub against each other and you end up with pain, stiffness and swelling.
At this stage, there is nothing much you can do to salvage your knees except to opt for knee replacement surgery.
Before the cartilage wears off completely though, you can take control by taking a well-rounded approach to protect your knees, which includes strength-building, balance work and increased functionality through flexibility.
Strengthening the muscles that support your knee will reduce stress on your knee joint.
Strong muscles at the front and back of your thigh (quadriceps and hamstrings respectively) help your knee joint absorb shock.
When there is less strain on the knee, there is a better chance for pain relief.
Ideally, swimming or water-based workouts are best because water absorbs part of your weight.
As you submerge yourself in the water, you are reducing the stress on the lower part of the body, but at the same time, you are increasing the resistance.
You don’t have to know how to swim to get into the pool because walking, kicking or jogging in water is enough to help you develop stronger leg and hip muscles, while increasing your fitness level.
If you’re not a water lover or have no access to a pool, then try a land-based exercise.
Do the squat
Strength-building exercises like squats, lunges, bridge, leg raises and calf raises will strengthen a few muscle groups at one go.
As muscle imbalance is one of the leading reasons for pain and injury, be sure to work the fronts, backs and sides of your legs evenly.
The squat is one of the best exercises to strengthen your knee joints as it is a triple action movement that works the hips, knees and ankles.
There are many versions of doing the squat, but if you’re a beginner, start with sitting on the edge of a chair with your back straight, knees aligned at a 90-degree angle and arms held in a prayer position.
Now, try to lift your bottom a few inches off the chair.
Hold for three seconds, then bring your butt down again to rest on the chair.
Repeat that exercise 10 times.
To further stabilise the knee joints, try some standing yoga poses on two legs before attempting to balance on one leg, while maintaining good posture.
If your knee is hurting no matter what activity you do, don’t ignore the pain and push through it because this is going to further aggravate the pain.
A simple way to reduce inflammation and pain is to ice the affected area for 20 minutes immediately after exercise.
Some activities can worsen the symptoms of osteoarthritis, and these include walking or standing on hard surfaces, or staying in the deep squat position while gardening or scrubbing floors.
Instead, wear properly cushioned shoes or gel inserts if you have a job or hobby that involves standing on hard surfaces, and sit on a low stool while gardening.
Also, don’t do the same exercise every day in order to avoid repetitive motion injury.
Vary your activities, e.g. walk on Monday, lift weights on Tuesday, yoga on Wednesday, gardening on Thursday, etc.
While strengthening exercises build muscle to help support your knee, they can also tighten the muscles. Tight muscles are more prone to injury.
Gentle stretching after strengthening exercises reduces muscle soreness and will keep your muscles long and flexible.
What you eat can also affect your joints, but there is no specific diet to ease knee pain.
However, adding certain nutrients to your diet can help protect your joints.
Studies show that regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids lowers inflammation caused by prolonged knee pain.
Some good sources are fish like mackerel, sardines and tuna; green leafy vegetables like spinach; and eggs.
Many of us also do not get an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are important for strong bones and healthy joints.
They may also help to prevent osteoporosis and other bone diseases that are caused by ageing.
Remember that a sedentary lifestyle is the worst possible situation for your knees. So, get moving.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.