Some people mistakenly believe that exercise is bad for joint health. It’s true that people who have severe joint symptoms due to arthritis should modify how they work out based on the recommendations of their doctor and whether an activity causes pain. Certain arthritis sufferers may need to avoid daily, high-impact exercise, but even people who have arthritis need to keep their bodies moving. In fact, doing so can help improve the symptoms and how joints function.
Multiple studies show that staying physically active improves joint pain and stiffness and improves functionality. When you exercise, it increases blood flow to the joints and the delivery of key nutrients to the synovial fluid, the fluid that reduces friction within the joint. It also strengthens the muscles that support the joint and keeps it stable. The extra muscle you build from strength training helps absorb force when you walk or run, so your joints take less of a beating. Muscles serve as a type of shock absorber.
What’re more, exercise causes damaged cells within joints to be broken down and disposed of so that healthier ones can take their place. This is called autophagy and is a way the cells within the joint get rid of injured cells it no longer needs. Once those old, damaged cells are out of the picture, exercise facilitates the activity of genes that help rebuild new, healthy cartilage. Out with the hold and in with the new!
So, we know exercise does a lot of healthy stuff for joints. Now, a new study looks at another way physical activity may be beneficial for joints.
An Unexpected Benefit of Exercise
According to a new study published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, staying physically active has other benefits for joint health. This research shows that exercise may improve joint health by reducing inflammation within the joint itself. How does this happen? When you exercise, the force of your movements pushes down on cartilage cells that lie in your knee and hip joint. These are the cells that actively produce cartilage, the tissue that lines the bones and cushions them–and they’re important for healthy joint function. Osteoarthritis is marked by a gradual wearing down of this cartilage, sometimes to the point that the bones that make up a joint rub together. We now know that osteoarthritis also involves inflammation of synovial fluid that bathes the cartilage.
No wonder osteoarthritis often becomes more painful over time! Turns out the cells in the interior of joints are sensitive to mechanical force. When they detect it, they release a protein called HDAC6. In turn, this protein blocks the activity of molecules within the joint that cause inflammation and cartilage breakdown. Therefore, by way of this protein, exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on joints. This explains why people with arthritis who stay active feel less pain and stiffness.
Another Reason Exercise Matter When You Have Arthritis
One reason the incidence of knee and hip arthritis is climbing is due to the obesity epidemic. Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for joint problems since each additional pound of weight you carry places added pressure on your joints. Exercise helps with weight control and improves body composition.
In fact, a randomized-controlled study showed that weight loss of as little as 10% of total body weight reduced joint pain and inflammation in overweight and obese adults. The adults who lost weight also benefited from improved functionality. They got around better and experienced less joint pain and stiffness. It’s difficult to control weight with age without being physically active. That doesn’t mean you have to do extreme amounts of exercise. Even a small uptick in physical activity can have benefits.
A more recent study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that losing 20% or more of body weight was linked with even greater improvements in the symptoms of knee arthritis. In the study, participants who lost this amount of weight experienced improvements in pain and knee function. As a bonus, they also had a documented decrease in IL-6, a marker of inflammation.
Exercising with Arthritis
If you have arthritic knees or hips, exercise takes a little more planning. Always follow your physician’s guidelines on what type of exercise to do or not do since they know your medical history best. One thing you should definitely do is strengthen your quadriceps muscles that support your knees. Squats and lunges are two of the best exercises for doing this. If you have knee arthritis, using good form is essential. Get the form down perfect before using weights and stop if you experience joint pain. Don’t let your knees collapse inward when you squat, as this can aggravate knee pain. When you lunge, make sure your knees don’t extend past your ankles. If you have knee pain when you squat or lunge deeply, modify the move so you’re not descending as low.
For aerobic exercise, listen to your body. If you feel discomfort in your knees or hips when you do high-impact exercise, stick to low-impact movements. You can still get an intense workout while keeping both feet on the ground. Low impact doesn’t mean low intensity. If you do high-impact exercise, invest in a pair of shoes with good padding and ankle support to reduce the force on your joints. If your physician tells you it’s okay to do high-impact exercise, don’t do it every day. Vary the types of exercise you do too. Always do at least a 5-minute dynamic warm-up before doing any type of exercise. End your workout with a cooldown and stretches.
Exercise and weight loss are a powerful combination for improving joint symptoms due to osteoarthritis. Now, you know another way of staying physically active is good for your joint. Exercise is an anti-inflammatory for your joints! So, keep moving but exercise smart and don’t ignore knee or hip pain.
· National Institutes of Health. “Intensive weight loss helps knee arthritis”
· Science Daily. “Exercise helps prevent cartilage damage caused by arthritis.”
· Arthritis Rheumatol. 2015 Jun; 67(6): 1568–1576.doi: 10.1002/art.39073.
· OrthoInfo.com. “Arthritis of the Knee”
· WebMD.com. “Activity, Brace May Ease Arthritis Pain”