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Keeping your joints healthy lets you do the fun things you like to do, like walking, running, and playing sports. How can you keep them healthy? The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) says: get physical activity, eat a healthy balanced diet, avoid injuries, and get enough sleep. 1 2
But, let’s back up a minute. What’s a joint? It’s where 2 or more bones join together (e.g., your knee). What keeps them from grinding against each other? Cartilage, a hard slippery tissue, on the end of the bones lets them glide over one another, and not painfully rub against each other. What can happen to your joints? Usually arthritis sets in. In the most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis, or OA, the surface cartilage is damaged, or breaks down, or wears away—and the bones begin to rub against each other. This causes pain and swelling, and you can lose some motion in the joint. Other less common types of arthritis can also occur like rheumatoid, gout, and juvenile.
So, how can you protect your joints? First of all, get physical activity. This is one of the most important things you can do to keep your joints healthy! Regular activity keeps the muscles around your joints strong and functional, and keeps your joints from having to do all the work. Even if you already have arthritis, physical activity helps reduce disability and keeps your joints working properly. So, keep your joints healthy by keeping them moving! The more you move, the less stiffness you’ll have. 3
Also, eat a healthy diet to help manage your weight. Excess weight puts stress on your joints, especially your knees, hips, and feet. And this can cause wear and tear that may lead to arthritis later on in life. In addition, it is good for your overall health! At ChooseMyPlate.gov, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes the 5 food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. Their plate picture also gives you guidance for how much of each item is recommended. It’s generally ¼ of the plate for each of the first 4 with a side of dairy.
That same healthy balanced diet will also help to build strong bones. And how about dietary supplements? Many take glucosamine and chondroitin to help their joints. Current research shows these may not have much benefit for people with osteoarthritis. Although, they seem to reduce osteoarthritis pain for some. However, there is no evidence that they prevent arthritis. Scientists are now researching the effects of green tea, various vitamins, and other supplements for joint health. As always, check with your health care provider before taking dietary supplements.
So always remember this from the Arthritis Foundation: “For every pound you gain, you add 4 pounds of pressure on your knees and 6 times the pressure on your hips.” 4 Thinking in reverse: if you lose 10 pounds, then you’d take a lot of pressure off of your joints. Can you hear them breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of it?!
What can you eat to help your joints? Following a diet low in processed foods and saturated fat and rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and beans is great for your body—the principles of the “Mediterranean diet”. 5 There’s science behind this. Studies confirm it helps arthritis by curbing inflammation–which benefits your joints. Another bonus is that eating this way can also lead to weight loss, which makes a big difference in managing joint pain. (But, beware the arthritis food myths on the internet!)
Next, try to avoid injuring your joints. When playing sports or exercising, wear the proper protective equipment. For example, sports injuries when you’re young (e.g., playing football in high school) can lead to osteoarthritis later on, so wear helmets, protective equipment, and shoes that fit well. Also, warm up and stretch before exercise. And take care of injuries as soon as they happen; if you “play through the pain”, it could cause more injury. As always, if you have any concerns, talk to your health care provider to find out what types of activities are right for you at your age and in your physical condition.
Restful sleep is good for you at any age; it is vital to your health and well bring. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7-9 hours, and children get 10-11 hours each night. 9 Why sleep for your joints? Sleep rejuvenates the body and mind (although the exact mechanism is still mysterious to scientists!). Adequate sleep is simply necessary for healthy functioning. Plus, there is a greater likelihood of obesity due to increased appetite caused by sleep deprivation. 10 And we’ve already found out what obesity can do to our joints!
So, remember: physical activity, healthy diet, injury avoidance, and enough sleep.
WebMD has a great slideshow about keeping joints healthy.
Wandel S, et al. (2010). Effects of glucosamine, chondroitin, or placebo in patients with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee: Network meta-analysis. BMJ. Published online September 16, 2010 (doi:10.1136/bmj.c4675). ↩