A little TLC for your joints today can make for a less painful tomorrow.
Joints—we take them for granted unless something goes wrong. And new research shows more of us than ever can expect to feel creaky: One of the most common causes of joint pain, arthritis, affects us in much higher numbers and at an earlier age than previously thought. Close to one-third (31%) of women ages 18 to 64 suffer from its chronic aches or stiffness. The percentages climb to well above half for those over 65. Osteoarthritis, the most prevalent form of arthritis, was once thought to be the inevitable result of wear and tear: Our joints, like the brake pads on a car, would eventually give out from all the miles we put on them. However, we now know that osteoarthritis is a complex condition influenced by a number of factors, many of which are within our control. Learning to take good care of your joints doesn’t just help head off arthritis—it reduces the risk of injuries as well. “When it comes to joint problems, prevention really is the best medicine,” says Dominic King, DO, a sports medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Joint Preservation Center. It’s never too early to start.
6 Ways to Protect Your Joints
WATCH YOUR WAISTLINE. “The single most important thing you can do for your joints is maintain a healthy weight,” says Richard Iorio, MD, codirector of the Joint Preservation and Arthritis Center at NYU Langone Health. Doing so minimizes the load on weight-bearing joints such as knees and hips—typically the biggest troublemakers. Because of gravity and biomechanics, knees bear a force three to six times your body weight when you walk. If you need to lose weight,
even a small drop can have a big payoff: Shedding just 10 pounds reduces a woman’s chance of getting painful knee osteoarthritis by 50% and relieves at least 30 pounds of pressure from her knees. “Being overweight can also cause metabolic changes, such as diabetes, which increases inflammation throughout the body,” says Iorio. “Inflammation can further degrade the cartilage.” DRINK UP. Water makes up 80% of the body’s cartilage, explains King. “Well-hydrated tissue is more compressible and able to handle a heavier load.” (Imagine a wet sponge versus a dry one.) Drinking whenever you feel thirsty is still the simplest way to ensure your body gets all the fluid it needs, says King. If you’re too busy to make drinking a priority, King suggests a hydration-reminder app such as Daily Water. As a general rule, water should be your default, as opposed to energy drinks or soda.
TAKE A WALK. Movement lubricates joints. If your job requires you to sit all day or you love marathon Netflix binges, stand up at least once an hour and streeeeeeeetch your arms high or do an exaggerated march around the room, bringing your knees way up with each step. To keep limber, Lynn Millar, PHD, a professor of physical therapy at Winston-salem State University in North Carolina, works from a standing desk and regularly strolls around her office. “My colleagues see me roaming the halls every few hours,” she says.
WORK UP A SWEAT. Exercise stimulates the cartilage (keeping it strong) and builds the muscles around your joints so they can act as shock absorbers. Shoot for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate exertion such as brisk walking, gardening or biking. If you tend to log the same old half hour on the treadmill day in, day out, switch up your routine so that different muscles and joints are engaged. “Doing the same motion
over and over again can predispose a joint to injury,” says King. Add in sessions that will boost your flexibility, such as tai chi and gentle yoga, or ask if your gym offers special stretching and flexibility classes.
EASE INTO EXERCISE. One of the most common reasons for developing arthritis is a previous injury. Injuries to the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) are more frequent in women than men and can greatly increase the chances of developing knee arthritis. “A proper dynamic warm-up can reduce your chances of injury by allowing joints to move safely and efficiently,” says Karen Litzy, DPT, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Start with a low-intensity version of whatever exercise you’re planning. Walk for a few minutes before you run, or move through lifting motions several times before picking up actual weights. Also avoid “weekend warrior” injuries by building up to longer or more intense levels of activity gradually over days and weeks rather than taking on that 5K without any training.
MONITOR PAIN. Some fatigue or muscle soreness is normal after a good workout, says Hany Bedair, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But if you have pain in a joint while exercising, that could be a sign of trouble. If so, give it a rest and switch to a lower-impact activity you can do comfortably (like swimming, biking or using an elliptical machine). If pain lasts more than a few days or interferes with daily life, see a doctor right away. Experts agree that getting early, appropriate treatment for minor issues can help you avoid bigger problems down the road.