Return to Activity After Knee Surgery

How do you get back to your active lifestyle once you've had knee surgery? Step by step. Gradual exercise is the key to improving strength and mobility and reducing joint stiffness and even weight gain. Here's how to make the most of your "new knee" and regain your active lifestyle after surgery.

Depending on the type of knee surgery you've had, most doctors recommend putting your knee to good use almost immediately after surgery. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says early mobility:

  • Helps build quadriceps strength,
  • Develops control of the new knee joint,
  • Helps counteract effects of anesthesia, and
  • Encourages healing.

You'll be instructed to walk a little within a few hours after surgery and encouraged to begin range-of-motion exercises.

A day or two after surgery a physical therapist will guide you through more active exercises.  You may need crutches for stability while you walk, but you'll be encouraged to put some weight on your knee and do simple exercises like these provided by the University of Washington School of Medicine and Public Health:

  • Ankle Pumps: When lying or sitting, pump each ankle up, down, and around in circles several times per hour.
  • Toe Raises: Stand balanced on both feet. Gently rock up to your toes and back down to your heel. Do 3 sets of 20 toe raises throughout the day.
  • Quad Sets: Tighten the group of muscles on top of your thigh (quadriceps) and try to straighten (extend) your knee. You should be able to see and/or feel the muscle contract. Hold the contraction for 5 seconds. Relax the muscle completely. Repeat. Try to do 100 quad sets each day in sets of 5-10.
  • Straight Leg Raises: Lie on your back, bend the healthy knee, and place that foot on the floor. Perform a quad set and lift your other leg up 1 to 1.5 feet off the ground. Hold for 3-5 seconds, and then slowly lower your leg. Relax. This exercise can be done 2-3 times a day. Each time try to do 3 sets of 20.

Within a week of surgery, you should be ready for strengthening exercises like:

  • Wall Sits: With your back against a wall, slowly slide down the wall until your thighs are at a 45° angle. Hold 10-30 seconds. Repeat 10 times; do 3-4 times per day.
  • Mini Squats: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly bend about 60° to 90° at the knees and then slowly stand back up. Keep weight balanced over both feet. You may need to use the back of a chair for balance. Repeat 10 times; do 3-4 times per day.

Walking is encouraged, but it will take four to six weeks of recovery after knee surgery before you're ready for more strenuous exercise.  When your physician and physical therapist clear you for more activity, start out slowly, build up gradually and let pain be your guide.  It's normal to expect some aching after knee surgery, but if your knee becomes increasingly painful, that's a sign you're doing too much.  Stop exercising, rest and try again at a less intense level. 

Some people take several months or longer before they're fully back to their pre-surgery activity level.  The important thing is to keep putting your best foot (or knee) forward to regain your active lifestyle. 


American Academy of Orthoepedic Surgeons

Activities After a Knee Replacement

University of Washington School of Medicine and Public Health

Arthroscopic Knee Surgery Home Exercise Program