How to keep your joints healthy, starting today
When you think of arthritis, you might think of it as a disease that older people get. But the fact is, you can start experiencing arthritis pain as early as your 40s. You might also think it’s something you have no control over. However, the lifestyle choices you make now may help keep your joints healthy in your later years.
That’s important when you consider 31% of people aged 45 to 65 years, report having been diagnosed with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1 And rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, is most commonly diagnosed in people between ages 40 and 60, says Daniel Hernandez, M.D., director of medical affairs and Hispanic outreach for CreakyJoints/Global Healthy Living Foundation.
“Arthritis is not just a disease of older adults,” he says. “Anyone can develop arthritis.”
Signs of arthritis
Spotting arthritis early is important. “The earlier you are diagnosed and treated, the less likely it is that the disease will be able to progress and cause more damage,” Dr. Hernandez says.
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, sometimes known as “wear and tear arthritis.” Osteoarthritis happens when cartilage in the joints – especially the knees, hands and hips – begins to wear down. Those changes are usually slow and more noticeable later in life, but some people start to experience symptoms of osteoarthritis in their 40s and 50s. Symptoms may include:2
- Pain or aches in the joints
- Stiff joints
- Decreased flexibility
- Swelling in the joints
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory form of the disease in which the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells. Rheumatoid arthritis usually attacks the hands, wrists, feet and knees, but it can also damage organs like the heart, lungs and eyes, Dr. Hernandez says. Symptoms may include:3
- Pain in one or more joints
- Joint stiffness
- Tenderness and swelling in the joints
- Weight loss
- Symptoms on both sides of the body (for example, pain in both hands)
“These types of autoimmune arthritis commonly affect younger people and can cause much more inflammation and joint destruction at a younger age,” says Phillip Kadaj, M.D., an internal medicine specialist in private practice in Midland, Michigan and a medical expert at JustAnswer.
How to help keep your joints healthy
Some of the risk factors for arthritis – genetics, age, sex, past injuries – are out of your control. But there are several lifestyle changes you can make that may help keep your joints healthy and and slow down arthritis progression.
Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
Being just 10 pounds overweight puts an extra 15 to 50 pounds of pressure on your knees. That increases the risk of developing osteoarthritis or making the disease worse if you already have it.4 The good news is that weight loss “may reduce joint pain, inflammation, and disability and improve physical function in people who already have the disease,” says Kirsten Ambrose, associate director of the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology found that for every pound of weight a person loses, there’s four times less stress on the knee.5
Exercise is one of the best ways to help keep your joints healthy and potentially prevent arthritis from getting worse. That includes activities such as walking, swimming, lifting weights and doing yoga or tai chi, all of which can help reduce joint pain and improve joint function. “While there is no evidence that physical activity can prevent arthritis, physical activity can certainly help improve or maintain muscle strength, flexibility, balance, agility and joint stability,” Ambrose says. “Those factors can help minimize the risk of falls or other causes of joint injury that can lead to osteoarthritis.”
Aim for better posture
Practicing good posture can help keep your joints healthy. That’s largely because bad posture “puts unnecessary strain on your joints and can lead to pain and inflammation,” Dr. Hernandez says.
The correct posture while standing is with your back straight and your feet shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should be back, hands at your side, knees slightly bent, with your weight primarily on the balls of your feet.
When you’re sitting, your feet should be flat on the floor, with your ankles in front of your knees. Relax your shoulders and keep your elbows close to your body. Make sure your back is fully supported.6 If you’re looking at a computer, the top of the monitor should be at or just below eye level.7
Eat healthy foods
Some studies have shown a healthy diet can help improve joint function and decrease joint pain.8 That includes eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Your body is already in a state of inflammation when you have arthritis; consuming soda, fried foods, red meat and refined carbs (white flour and pasta) can trigger more inflammation and make pain worse.9 Foods that have been shown to lower inflammation, on the other hand, include olive oil, leafy greens, nuts, salmon, tuna, strawberries and oranges.10
Smoking is harmful to your joints and is a top risk factor for arthritis. That’s especially true of rheumatoid arthritis, which has a genetic component but also has environmental triggers, including being a smoker or being exposed to other toxins, Dr. Hernandez says.
“One common misconception I see is that if someone develops arthritis, they think that the only option is to cope with it until they need surgery. There are actually many different treatment options,” Dr. Kadaj says. “My advice is to not let painful joints get worse without getting checked.”
“Each person’s experience or rate of progression of arthritis is different. But everyone can benefit from managing arthritis on a daily basis from the moment they start feeling joint pain,” says Ambrose.