How Physical Activity Can Help Preserve Your Joints

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We need to take care of our joints — our elbows, our knees, our shoulders, our fingers, and all the rest of our bendy pieces. When something goes wrong with these important parts of the body, we can find ourselves facing major, often painful adaptations to the way we live. Maybe we’ll have trouble walking, or writing with a pencil, or reaching up to take cans from a shelf. Fortunately there’s one common thing we can do to help prevent future joint injury and deal with any existing problems. That one thing is exercise.

The Relationship Between Exercise and Joint Health

The benefits of exercise are so varied and important that you’re probably tired of hearing about them, but we won’t let that stop us. There’s the reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, not to mention premature death. There’s protection against high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, cancer, insomnia, and dementia. And there’s just a general, overall sense of well-being that comes from working out.

But there’s also a lingering fear among many people that exercise is bad for our joints. Some even believe it can lead to osteoarthritis. It does not. Study after study has shown no correlation between increased exercise and osteoarthritis. Other studies have shown people who exercise regularly have significantly less musculoskeletal disabilities than non-exercisers, even as they get older.

Exercise is also beneficial to people who already have joint damage due to arthritis. Randomized clinical trials have shown both walking and strength training to be effective at reducing pain and disability in patients with knee osteoarthritis.

How Does Exercise Protect the Joints?

There are a number of benefits to the joints that come with exercise, whether strength training or cardiovascular work.

  • Stronger muscles. Strong muscles stabilize and take the pressure off of a joint, making it both less likely to suffer traumatic injury and less likely to be damaged by wear and tear.
  • Lubrication. Your joints are surrounded by lubricating synovial fluid. During exercise, this synovial fluid gets pumped through the joint and into the articulating cartilage, helping to pad the cartilage and reduce friction against it.
  • Increased blood flow. Blood flow brings oxygen and important nutrients to the synovial membrane and into the synovial fluid. Blood does not flow directly to the cartilage, so cartilage does not generally regrow once damaged, but the rest of the joint benefits from this increased nutrient circulation.
  • Removal of cellular waste. It’s a lot like taking out the trash. Exercise encourages the breakdown of damaged cells and the removal of spent nutrients, making room for new nutrients and healthy new cells.

How Often Should I Exercise?

There’s no need to overdo it, especially if you’re just starting out. Get fit gradually with low-intensity, low impact workouts. Slowly build up to 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week. That’s just five thirty-minute sessions, and you get rest days! Even better, you can break those workouts down into ten-minute blocks if it’s easier on your joints.

What is the Best Type of Exercise?

Variety is key. Doing a range of different exercises will keep you from getting bored, will keep your body in good all-around shape without overemphasizing particular muscle groups, and lowers your risk of injury. Pick a balance of exercises from each of three categories: strength training, cardiovascular training, and stretching and range of motion exercises.

Strength Training

Training with weights or fitness products like resistance tubing helps to build the muscles that support the joints. Start with lighter weights and lower resistance and then gradually increase the difficulty as your strength improves. If you don’t have access to a gym with fancy equipment and weight sets, using a combination of bodyweight exercises and resistance bands is just as effective, especially for joint health.

Cardiovascular Training

Again, you don’t need to overdo it here. A brisk walk is enough to get your blood flowing. Swimming is also great if you have access to water. You could also try bikes or stationary bikes or any other exercise that elevates your heart rate. If you have existing damage to your joints, you’ll want to avoid high impact exercises like running and jumping.

Stretching and Range of Motion

Don’t forget to stretch before and after your strength training. Afterward, when your muscles are warmed up, you’ll be able to perform deeper stretches. Stretching and range of motion exercises will relieve stiffness and increase your ability to move your joints without pain.

Don’t Forget to Warm Up Before Exercising

A proper warm-up is important to ease yourself into an exercise session and prevent injury. The last thing you want to do when you’re exercising for long-term joint health is to sprain something because you went at it too hard, too fast. So start slow with light calisthenics and stretches, even if you’re just going for a walk. And even when you’re walking, start slow! Gradually increase your pace as you start to feel stronger. Your body will thank you, now and long into the future!