New year, new you! If that means you’ve been working out to the max, you may want to think about taking it easy. You could be hurting your joints, ankles, knees, and hips. Karl Koenig, MD, orthopedic surgeon and the Medical Director of the Musculoskeletal Institute at UT Health Austin, spoke to KTBC about why it’s important to protect your joints.
Why is joint health as important as muscle health?
As most people begin a new workout regimen, we think about strengthening our muscles rather than our joints, but exercise is one of the most important ways to maintain joint health. Maintaining your joints is critical and it goes hand-in-hand with training healthy muscles, ligaments, and bones.
A joint is any place in the body where two bones need to glide past one another. The cartilage around your joints act as cushion which allows those bones to glide. That cushion deteriorates over time with normal wear and tear from everyday life. This process is called osteoarthritis. Dr. Koenig explains that this happens to everybody and is a natural part of aging. Osteoarthritis is also the reason why your joints get stiff and swollen as you get older. What often happens is people begin to have pain and exercise less. Then, they gain weight and become less active causing their joints to hurt more. Dr. Koenig believes that exercise, done at low impact, is the safest way to protect your joint health. The healthier your joints are, the better your chances are of preventing painful arthritis allowing you to be more physically active. When your muscles are strong and you have good range of motion in your joints, it helps you keep your balance and sense of equilibrium, which is a critical part of being able to exercise and to preventing injuries.
What are some of the exercises that impact the joints most?
Exercise is a mechanical activity, so when you’re running and pounding on your joints, carrying heavy packs, or lifting heavy weights, you are putting a lot of impact, or load, on the joint. Dr. Koenig says that if you’re healthy and it doesn’t bother you, then it’s OK to continue these activities. However, if you’re having pain in your joints, doing things like cycling and swimming, where you share your body weight with the water or your bicycle, will allow you to move your joints, keep your muscles strong, and get a healthy aerobic workout.
- Physical activity is the best thing you can do to keep your joints healthy. It helps to circulate the synovial fluid that keeps your joints well-lubricated so they can move past each other and maintain a good range of motion. During exercise, blood also circulates to your joints flushing the joint with oxygen and nutrients it needs, while removing cellular waste.
- Low impact exercise like swimming, bicycling, or walking are good choices as they don’t involve a lot of heavy load on your joints.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight is critical for healthy joins. Rach pound of weight we gain puts four more pounds of stress on your knees. So, a well-balanced diet can help cut down the wear and tear on your joints.
- Warm up and stretch before exercise, especially during the winter months. Warming up increases blood flow to the muscles, boosts body temperature, and prepares your joints for the impact they are about to bear.
Because it’s January, people may be exercising too vigorously. What advice would you give them?
Generally, Dr. Koenig says “listen to your body.” It’s normal to have some muscle soreness for a couple of days after starting up an exercise program, but it should cycle between mild soreness and getting better. It’s a good idea to add variety to your exercise routine so you are working different muscles on different days.
If you have pain that persists for more than a couple of days, then you might want to discuss with your doctor or a physical therapist to make sure you have not injured yourself or to make sure you’re doing your exercises correctly. If you do injure yourself, there are alternative ways to exercise around sore joints or muscles so you can continue to be active and not injure yourself further.
Do vitamins and supplements really work for better joint health?
People often ask Dr. Koenig about taking vitamins and supplements that claim to maintain joint health or reduce arthritis. The market is flooded with a variety of pills and supplements that profess to improve the health of your joints and prevent arthritis or pain. The best scientific evidence available suggests that most of these are unlikely to help much except for certain natural anti-inflammatories like turmeric. Dr. Koenig always advises his patients to try to be informed consumers by doing a little research when considering a new supplement as well as to ask advice from a medical professional.