We take our joints for granted. But without them, we couldn’t bend, turn, lift, crouch, throw or even wiggle our fingers and toes. In other words, our joints make it possible for us to move. And, yet, the only time we pay attention to these essential parts of our bodies is when they ache.
But with a little respect and a little TLC, you and your joints can breeze through even the busiest of seasons with nary a twinge.
A joint is the connection between two bones, bound together by ligaments and muscle, which make movement possible. The five types of joints in our bodies include: ball and socket (hip and shoulder), vertebrae (neck and back), hinged (elbows and knees), gliding (wrists) and saddle (thumb). Our knees, hips and back are considered weight-bearing joints because they support our entire body weight.
Smooth tissue called cartilage and synovium, as well as synovial fluid, cushion the joints so bones don’t rub together. Aging, injury, disease, poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight all affect joint health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joint pain is one of the most common health complaints. An estimated 63 million Americans suffer from chronic joint pain, aching or stiffness. Knee pain tops the list, followed by shoulder and hip pain. Joint pain can range from irritating to debilitating, from acute to chronic.
“Keeping our joints healthy is key to our quality of life,” says Dr. Joe Styron, an orthopaedic surgeon and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Our joints are what allow us to remain active, whether that is playing sports or any other activities we enjoy. Having healthy joints maximizes the fun by minimizing any discomfort during our active lifestyles.”
The best way to care for your joints is to keep them and your muscles, ligaments and bones strong and stable. Check out these tips for good joint health.
Ditch The High Heels.
A 3-inch heel stresses your foot seven times more than a 1-inch heel. And that, in turn, puts extra stress on your knees, hips and back, possibly increasing your risk of osteoarthritis. On days when you know you’re going to be on your feet and walking around a lot (hello, shopping!), opt for a good pair of supportive, cushioned walking shoes. You want a shoe with a rounded or squared toe box, as well as one that’s flexible at the ball of the foot where you push off for each step.
Stay At A Healthy Weight.
Research has shown that every pound over your ideal healthy weight puts four times more stress on your knees, hips and back. Remember the latter are our weight-bearing joints, so the heavier you are, the more wear and tear you put on them. That in turn causes joint cartilage to wear away, leading to pain and a risk of permanent damage. If you’re overweight, you have at least three times the risk of developing knee osteoarthritis and two times the chance of arthritis in your hips.
“Maintaining a healthy weight is critical,” says Styron. “Our knees handle three to four times our body weight even when just walking. So if you think about losing just one pound over the course of one year of walking just 1,000 steps a day, that one pound of weight loss would result in 1,000,000 pounds less force across your knees.”
When lifting, use your legs, where the biggest muscles in your body are, by bending at your knees instead of bending your back. To protect your wrists and shoulder joints, use the palms of both hands or use both arms instead of your hands. Hold heavy objects close to your body, which is less stressful for your joints.
Standing and sitting up straight protects your joints from your neck down to your feet. When you slouch or hunch over a computer or the stove, you put stress on your joints. So throw back those shoulders, and stand tall! Your joints will thank you. Move It.
Being sedentary, whether binge-watching your favorite TV shows or spending hours working on a computer, ups your risk for joint stiffness and pain. Take frequent breaks, such as a 10- or 15-minute walk every hour. Get up, stretch and take a stroll around the office. The key is to keep that synovial fluid moving and lubricating your joints.
Drink enough water throughout the day to avoid dehydration, which can aggravate joint aches and pains. Go easy on your coffee intake, which can act as a diuretic.
Inflammation, the body’s response against a toxic invader or an injury, is the first stage of healing. But sometimes the process goes off kilter, leading to chronic inflammation. The latter damages our joints and surrounding tissues, especially the cartilage. One way to combat inflammation is with an anti-inflammatory, joint-friendly diet.
“Eating a diet that is low in inflammatory foods but high in protein is important to both your bone and joint health,” says Styron. “Snacking on nuts is a great healthy alternative to other snack foods, and they provide a good source of protein.”
Numerous studies have shown the Mediterranean diet (fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil) is an all-star, anti-inflammatory way to eat. Here are some other nutrients you should be eating for strong bones and muscles to support your joints.
Calcium/vitamin D:Think of these two as an inseparable couple. You need calcium for strong bones, and vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption. Good calcium food sources are dairy products and dark green leafy vegetables. Get your vitamin D from egg yolks and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Also many cereals, dairy products, soy and almond milk are fortified with vitamin D.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Considered a premier anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Hens fed flaxseed, fish oil or algae lay eggs enriched with omega-3s.
Sulfur: Connective joint tissues, including cartilage, tendons and ligaments, need sulfur to stay healthy. Food sources include eggs, poultry, fish, legumes, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Anthocyanin:Red, blue and dark purple fruits are chock-full of anthocyanin, an antioxidant that has shown anti-inflammatory properties. Go for blueberries, strawberries, black currants, raspberries, plums and cherries, especially tart cherries.
Protein: To keep your muscles strong, you need protein. Good sources include lean meats, seafood, beans, legumes, nuts and soy products.
Fiber: Eating fiber-rich foods helps control blood-sugar levels, which keeps glucose and insulin in check, reducing inflammation. Fill up on oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, black beans, lentils, artichokes, kale, spinach and green peas.
Supplements: Many supplements, such as glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, boswellia and ginger root, are touted for reducing joint inflammation and pain. It’s always best to check with your health care practitioner before using supplements.
What not to eat: White sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, highly processed packaged foods, unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids (soy, corn, safflower and cottonseed oils) and fried foods all cause an inflammation response in the body. In sensitive people, foods containing wheat gluten, milk casein, as well as additives like MSG and aspartame, can trigger inflammation.
Exercise For Healthy Joints
Along with an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise helps keep your joints healthy in plenty of ways. Exercise can help you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight to keep extra stress off your joints. Research shows that exercise can reduce joint swelling by increasing circulation. Remember that strong muscles support your joints; stronger abs and back muscles maintain your balance and prevent joint-damaging falls.
“Any exercise is better than no exercise at all,” says Styron. “Find an activity you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Exercise is not a one-size-fits-all thing, but with a little trial and error, you can find something to stay active and keep your joints healthy.”
A good, joint-friendly exercise routine can include walking, biking, swimming, yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi. Strength training, using machines or free weights, creates denser bone and stronger muscles to stabilize and protect joints. And don’t forget to include core strengthening exercises like planks. Start slowly with any exercise plan, and gradually build up to 30 minutes on most days. If you have a health condition, always work with your health care practitioner to create a suitable exercise plan for you.
Warm Up: It’s always a good idea to do gentle stretching before going full bore into any exercise routine.
3 Stretches In 3 Minutes
Downward facing dog: Start on all fours. Lift up into an inverted V, pressing heels toward floor. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute.
Kneeling lunge: While kneeling, step left foot forward. Then press hips forward, keeping left knee over left ankle. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs, and repeat.
Hip stretch: Lie on back with knees bent, right leg crossed over left thigh. Pull knees into chest. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs, and repeat.
Mastering the squat: Squatting is a functional body movement that we do every day. Too many people compensate for sore knees by bending over at the waist, which then stresses your back. The trick is to strengthen your thigh and core muscles so that you can squat without causing pain.
Wall Squat Exercise
Stand with your back against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart and heels 18 inches away from the wall. Keep your knees in line with your heels, not out in front of your toes.
Breathe in, and exhale as you squat by “sitting down” as far as you can comfortably go without dropping your buttocks lower than your knees. Make sure to keep your knees in line with your heels.
Tighten your abdominal muscles, and flatten your back against the wall. Inhale as you return to a standing position, pushing up through your heels, not off the balls of your feet, to work the muscles in the back of your legs and buttocks.
That’s one rep. Start with 10 reps, three times a week, and increase the reps number to 15 or 20 as you become stronger.
Sources: arthritis.org, experiencelifemag.com, webmd.com, prevention.com