Cooler weather, shorter days and the approaching holiday season may provide plenty of reasons to slip on healthy eating and exercising regularly. But staying active and keeping to a healthy diet are some of the best things you can do for your joints now and all year long.
Inactivity and decadent food choices from Thanksgiving through New Year’s can make it hard to stay on a good health course. But packing on a few extra pounds can be about more than your clothes fitting more snuggly than usual, it can also take a toll on your joints.
Being overweight raises your risk for developing osteoarthritis, a common joint disorder that results from wear and tear on a joint. Excess weight puts additional stress on weight-bearing joints like the knee and hip.
“Your body weight multiplies the pressure exerted on the joints,” explains orthopedic surgeon Kwame Ennin, M.D., of Texas Center for Joint Replacement, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Plano. “The stress put on a joint such as the knee can be 4 to 6 times your body weight. In the case of a hip joint, the stress can be anywhere from 3 to 11 times your body weight.”
Carrying just 10 pounds of excess weight can, therefore, places about 100 pounds of pressure on the hip joints and another 60 pounds of pressure on the knee joints. It’s the kind of increase that can result in joint damage, joint pain and inflammation over time. Inflammatory factors associated with weight gain can be troublesome to other joints as well, including the hands.
The good news is various treatment options exist for individuals who are experiencing joint pain. Anti-inflammatory medication — either taken orally or injected directly into the affected joint — is often the first step in managing the pain. But Ennin notes that each patient must be evaluated on their overall health and unique needs for wellness.
“Before something like joint replacement surgery is ever recommended, we prescribe anti-inflammatories,” he says. “Physical therapy is also important to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility. Surgery is the final option in most cases, as we do everything we can to manage symptoms in the most conservative means regardless of a patient’s weight or general health.”
Physical activity has many health benefits, one of which is helping shed excess weight. But it can be hard to move if your joints are hurting.
Knowing the right exercises to do to help control the pain, increase your flexibility and range of motion, and bring relief is key, according to Wendy Willett, a physical therapist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano. Willett often includes water exercises in her treatment plan for patients with osteoarthritis and joint pain.
“Swimming, water aerobics and walking laps in a pool are great options,” she says. “In water, your body floats so you take much of the weight off your joints. Movement can then take place with little or no pain. At the same time, water provides resistance that allows your muscles to work without putting pressure on the joints.”
Here are four low-impact, joint-friendly exercises to try in the pool:
- Walking. In shallow water, walk forward, backward and sideways. Add arm movements for added benefit.
- Bicycle Pedals. Hold on to the side of the pool with your arms extended and your back to the edge. Extend your legs out in front of you and begin pedaling.
- Weight Resistance Training. Free weights that are made for the pool can either be held or attached around your arms or ankles. Try walking or jogging while using the weights.
- One Leg Balance. Bend one leg halfway up the other leg and briefly hold. Repeat with the other leg.
Although it’s an easy choice, walking can be tricky this time of year thanks to cooler weather and less daylight. Willett suggests finding an enclosed space to walk in, if possible. Using a stationary bike is another option that has the same decreased weight-bearing benefits as the pool, and allows for movement without putting a lot of pressure on the knees and hips.
“More than anything, the best treatment for joint pain is stopping it before it starts. Protect your knees and hips as much as possible by lightening the load. It’s better to get moving now to lose a few extra pounds, before moving gets you,” Willett adds.