What helps joint health?
Many of us may not even think about our joints until something has gone wrong—particularly if they become swollen or painful.
This is often the case in particular when it comes to exercise. It’s probably safe to assume that many of us exercise in order to keep our muscles strong and our cardiovascular system in good shape, but it’s important to remember to protect our joints at the same time. A study by Harvard Medical School concluded that becoming more active can protect your joints and help you to maintain independence further into old age. 1 .
As the connecting points between our bones, our joints—such as our elbows, knees, ankles, hips, wrists and neck—are held together by intricate groupings of ligaments, cartilage and muscles that serve as shock absorbers.
Protecting joints during exercise
We all know how different it feels when our muscles ache due to getting back into a fitness routine compared to when we have done some damage to a joint. Muscle pain (not a strain) will ache, whereas joint pain can feel relentless.
Think of all the work our joints do to help us reach, twist, bend, turn, stretch, climb, walk and even sit! It is imperative to protect our joints when moving our bodies—joint pain is a major reason why normally active people stop exercising.
In terms of exercise, there are some common causes of joint injury. A big one is doing too much too soon. Perhaps it is the first warm day in a while and you go for a long bike ride. While cycling is fairly easy on the joints, a long bike ride after weeks or months of not riding could mean some overuse damage to your joints.
The importance of going slow
As tempting as it is to jump back into an exercise or excitedly try a new one, take it easy!
Repetition may get a bad rap for being boring, but for many of us, doing the same exercise feels comforting and familiar. But that repetition could put some strain on the joints. As with all aspects of healthy living, variety is the key.
There is no one exercise or activity you can do to strengthen and protect your joints—a varied fitness and movement routine is what’s most helpful to avoid overusing or abusing a given joint.
Strengthening muscles with weights, keeping joints moving with cardiovascular activity, stretching after exercise—these are all part of any health and fitness program, and even more important for your joints.
Going slow does not mean avoiding movement
Beyond exercise, joint health is necessary for functional movement. At one point or another, we have all had a very deep sleep during which we may not have tossed or turned as much, leading to waking up in the morning with a stiff shoulder or neck. Or perhaps we stayed in front of the computer too long at work without getting up to take a walk and stretch. While those aren’t necessarily examples of joint damage, they do highlight the importance of keeping our joints moving all day (and all night) long. The arthritis foundation suggests taking a standing break every 30 minutes where possible and making time for simple stretches throughout the day. 2
Protect yourself with these joint health tips
Make sure you are wearing the right footwear and using the proper equipment. If you are cycling, go to a reputable bicycle shop to get measured for the right sized bike. If you are running, a shop that focuses on running shoes can be a great resource for analyzing your gait and foot movements to determine what is the best shoe for you. This is when social exercise or consulting a personal trainer is very helpful. Body alignment is essential to protecting joints.
Other joint health exercises that are joint-protective are leg squats and push-/pull-ups. Squats help strengthen the muscles that protect the ankles, knees and hips.
Take away some gravity and impact by getting into a pool. Swimming is a challenging workout that minimizes joint injury since there is much less impact on the joints. But beyond swimming, water walking and aqua aerobics help get our heart rate up while being good to our joints.
Push-ups and pull-ups are great joint health exercises to help strengthen the muscles in the arms, including the wrists and elbows, as well as the shoulders and neck. As mentioned above, make sure you are doing the exercise with proper form so as not to cause excessive joint strain or injury.
The most important joint health tip of all
Above all else, remember to give yourself a break. When considering what helps joint health, this is so important. As well as moving, you also need to rest and recuperate in order to achieve your fitness goals. Our whole body benefits from stretching and resting. It is a way to slow down and give your body time to absorb the benefits of an activity and heal from any strain.