It’s easy to take your joints for granted. But remember, our joints stiffen and become less flexible as we age. General wear and tear can damage the protective cartilage that helps to cushion your joints, leading to joint pain later in life, and contributing to the development of more serious joint problems. This includes conditions like bursitis or tendonitis, as well as long-term (or chronic) health complaints like osteoarthritis.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce wear on your joints. Regular exercise will help to keep your joints flexible and strong. Taking steps to stay hydrated could help to protect cartilage from degradation, and even simple things like eating well may play a part in encouraging good joint health.
In this article, you will find tips designed to help you maintain healthy joints as you age.
When to worry
If you already suffer from joint pain, you should book an appointment with your doctor straight away.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose the pain and rule out any underlying conditions. It’s always best to see them before you take steps to improve joint health on your own.
Keep your joints hydrated
Many of your joints are protected by cartilage - a flexible tissue that acts a bit like a shock absorber, allowing your bones to slide against each other, and cushioning your joints from sudden impact. Cartilage has a high water content, and studies show that it is more susceptible to damage when you get dehydrated.
Damaged or degraded cartilage is less effective at protecting your joints from wear, which means that dehydration may cause long-term damage to your joints.
Dehydration increases your risk of gout. Gout is a specific form of arthritis that occurs when too much uric acid is allowed to build up in your bloodstream, leading to the formation of tiny crystals in your joints. These crystals build up slowly over time, but they can cause long-term damage to your joints. They can also make movement quite painful, and many people find gout debilitating.
To reduce your risk of gout and prevent long-term damage to your joints, try to stay hydrated throughout the day. You can do this by drinking more fluids or eating water-rich fruits and vegetables.
Guidelines published by the British Nutrition Foundation recommend drinking between six to eight glasses of water per day to keep your body hydrated. But this is just an estimate. Your body will need more water if you are exercising or spending a lot of time outdoors in the sun.
If you don’t like the taste of water, try drinking:
- water with a slice of lime, orange or lemon
- coconut water
- tea or coffee (in moderation)
Keep an eye on your posture
Poor posture can put pressure on certain joints, causing them to become overworked and worn. Over time, the damage caused by poor posture can lead to the development of conditions like tendonitis and bursitis - where the fluid-filled sacs (or bursa) which protect the joints become inflamed and painful.
There is some suggestion that poor posture may exacerbate problems with osteoarthritis so it’s always sensible to keep a close eye on your posture.
If you are worried about your posture, there are things you can do to help fix common posture mistakes. Try to:
- perform stretching exercises two or three times a week
- engage in low-impact exercise for at least 150 minutes per week to strengthen your muscles and relieve pressure on your joints
- cross your legs at the ankle instead of the knee
- sit up straight at work, with your feet flat on the floor and your knees at the same level as your hips
- stand straight and tall, with your shoulders back and your stomach tucked in to reduce stress on your spine
- shift your weight from one foot to the other if you have to stand for a long time
- regularly stretch your neck muscles by turning your head from one side to another
- switch positions every 10-15 minutes whenever you are sitting down
It does take time to correct poor posture. You may also find that posture-correcting exercises feel strange or unnatural to begin with, but moving your body back into alignment will become easier with practice. Try to start slowly, and make small changes while carrying out everyday activities. If you are keen to make a big change, you may find it helpful to start practising yoga.
According to research conducted by Temple University in Philadelphia, certain types of yoga may help to improve postural stability and balance.
Note: If trying to correct your posture causes you pain or discomfort, you should see your doctor straight away. They may be able to recommend a physiotherapist or provide exercises that allow you to make safe adjustments to your posture.
Keep your joints moving
Regular exercise helps to maintain joint function. It relieves stiffness, encourages flexibility, and helps to build stronger joints. Exercise also helps you to strengthen the muscles that surround your joints, which is key to reducing long-term wear and tear.
You should be careful about the type of exercise you pick, however. Many joints are protected by articular cartilage - a smooth, white tissue designed to help your joints move smoothly. Articular cartilage doesn't have any blood vessels. Unfortunately, this means that your body can’t repair articular cartilage that’s damaged during high-impact sporting activities (like running, playing football or martial arts training).
If you are trying to maintain the health of your joints, stick to low-impact activities. Some good examples include:
- yoga and pilates
- tai chi
- aqua aerobics
Try to do at least 150 minutes of exercise each week. This could mean doing 30 minutes of walking for five days of the week, or two 60-minute sessions, followed by a further 30 minutes later in the week. There’s no reason to do all of your exercise on one day, and it may actually be more helpful to spread activities out so that your body has time to recover. Find more information on the physical activity guidelines for adults.
Protect your joints from injury
Sporting injuries that affect your cartilage can cause permanent damage to your joints. Sporting injuries are also known to increase the risk of developing degenerative joint conditions like:
If you are exercising, it is important to warm up (and down) properly. This helps to loosen your joints and increase blood flow to your muscles. It also primes the connections between your nerves and muscles, which helps to reduce the chances of an unexpected strain.
You should also take care whenever you are lifting something heavy. This includes weights in the gym, boxes or any other object over 20 pounds. Lifting can place a lot of strain on your joints, and research published in Cogent Medicine shows that over 40% of weightlifting injuries affect shoulder muscles and joints.
If you are intending to lift something heavy, you should:
- make sure that you have adopted a stable pose, with your legs spread and your shoulders square
- make sure that you have a firm grasp on the object you are about to lift
- lift without bending your back
- lift without twisting your shoulders or neck. As a rule of thumb, your shoulders should always be parallel to your waist
- move smoothly, without jerking
- look ahead while lifting
Watch your weight
Excess weight puts strain on joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, every pound of excess weight exerts about four pounds of extra pressure on the knees, hips, and other weight-bearing joints. This means that someone who is currently 10 pounds overweight is placing approximately 40 pounds of extra pressure on their knees, and this extra pressure can cause long-term damage to your joints.
Obesity also causes chronic, low-grade inflammation throughout your body, and this inflammation can cause swelling in unrelated joints, such as the joints in your hands.
Being overweight is associated with an increased risk of joint pain and osteoarthritis, which is why it’s always a good idea to maintain a healthy weight.
If you are worried about your weight, you might be interested in reading our guide to losing weight safely. Take care when losing weight; losing weight too quickly can be bad for your health.
For best results, aim to lose between 1lb and 2lb per week by:
- cutting down on junk food, or foods high in sugar
- eating more fruit and vegetables
- eating more whole grain foods, like brown pasta or brown rice
- exercising for at least 150 minutes per week
- drinking more water
- making sure you’re eating regular meals to reduce the temptation to snack
Inflammation contributes to joint pain, and may contribute to the development of inflammatory arthritis. Luckily, certain foods are known to fight inflammation. This includes:
- green, leafy vegetables like spinach or kale
- nuts, including almonds and walnuts
- oily fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna or sardines
- fruits that are high in antioxidants, including strawberries, blueberries and cherries
If you are trying to maintain healthy joints, it may be worth thinking of ways to increase your intake of these foods. There’s no guarantee that they’ll stop the development of a joint condition, but research suggests that they will help to fight inflammation throughout the body.
A note on supplements…
If you are keen to protect your joints, you may be tempted to try joint health supplements or vitamins designed for joint health. Many of these supplements and vitamins contain omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine or chondroitin, which are all supposed to help you maintain joint health. These supplements are generally safe to take, but there isn’t much evidence to show that they actually work. It is also important to remember that supplements may have unintended side effects.
If you consider taking supplements, always check with your doctor to make sure it is safe to do so, especially if you already take prescribed medication.
If you are trying to safeguard the health of your joints, we recommend sticking to the principles outlined in this article.