Why do you weight train? For most people, it’s to preserve strength and muscle mass and to get a more favorable body composition. Every adult needs to work their muscles against resistance as muscles that aren’t continuously challenged decrease in size and strength with age. The old “use or lose it” certainly holds true for muscle health. It also applies to bone health. Osteoporosis is the pathologic loss of bone density, leading to fragile bones that fracture easily. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, half of all women over the age of 50 have low bone mass and about one in two will break a bone at some point as a result of thinning bones.
We also need to be concerned about joint health. Osteoarthritis is the most common joint affliction and it affects over half of all adults over the age of 65. For some, osteoarthritis only shows up on imaging and manifests with few symptoms. Yet, more than 30% of people diagnosed with osteoarthritis have a severe form of the disease and are disabled by their symptoms. So, joint health is a priority too! We know that resistance training helps prevent loss of muscle and bone tissue – but how does it impact the health of your joints?
What Makes Up a Joint?
You hear the term “joint” used a lot – but what IS this entity? A joint is a space where two bones connect. The bones that make up a joint are covered with a thin layer of cartilage called articular cartilage. Surrounding the cartilage-covered bones is a cavity enclosed by a tough, capsule. This capsule offers stability and protection and is filled with synovial fluid, a thick, viscous material that’s vital for joint health. The articular cartilage and the synovial fluid within the joint cavity absorb shock when you move the joint and helps reduce friction. The synovial fluid also nourishes and lubricates the articular cartilage that covers the bones.
Unfortunately, osteoarthritis can cause this well-designed system to fail. With osteoarthritis, the articular cartilage that covers the bones within a joint becomes thinner. As the disease progresses, the continuing breakdown of cartilage impacts the bone and bone spurs may form. We used to believe this was mostly a degenerative process but it now appears that the body mounts an inflammatory response as the joint becomes further damaged. In extreme cases, the cartilage is completely destroyed and the two bones within a joint rub against each other. Osteoarthritis is only one kind of arthritis. There are a variety of others as well, all of which cause loss of joint function.
Weight Training – Joint Healthy or Not?
It might seem that lifting heavy weights and doing movements like deadlifts and squats would be stressful to your joints, especially for people who already have arthritis. However, regular strength training increases muscle strength and size and the strength gained through weight training helps protect the joints. People who have osteoarthritis of the knee tend to have weak quadriceps and this limits the ability to get around pain-free. Strength training helps offset the weakness and improve functionality.
How do we know this? In one study, published in Clinical Geriatric Medicine, researchers compiled the data from eight randomized, controlled trials looking at strength training with osteoarthritis. It showed that seniors with osteoarthritis can successfully build strength and improve functionality with strength training that employs progressive overload to keep it challenging. This study only looked at osteoarthritis of the knee, not osteoarthritis of other joints – but the benefits were robust. Osteoarthritis can also affect other joints, including the hips, cervical spine, lumbar spine, and the joints in the fingers.
Another study showed that participants with osteoarthritis who strength trained experienced less narrowing of the joint space in their knees over 30 months than those who didn’t. They also reported less knee pain. Narrowing of the joint space in the knee is correlated with loss of cartilage and is an indicator that the osteoarthritis is progressing. So, strength training seems to reduce pain, improve functionality, and may even slow progression – all joint-friendly benefits!
Protecting Your Joints When You Train
· Whether you have osteoarthritis or are trying to preserve your joint health, here are some guidelines:
· Start each strength-training session with a warm-up to increase blood flow to your joints and muscle and enhance range-of-motion.
· Cross-train so you aren’t doing the same repetitive motions over and over.
· Don’t do exercises that aggravate or bring on pain.
· Be mindful of using good form. Form is important for everyone but vital if you have joint issues.
· Talk to your physician before weight training with any form of arthritis.
If you already have symptomatic osteoarthritis, strength training can improve functionality and potentially help with pain, but you also need flexibility training, including gentle stretching to improve the range-of-motion of your joints. And don’t forget about aerobic exercise. If high-impact exercise hurts your joints, try low-impact exercises such as swimming, cycling, or low-impact step training. Aerobic exercise is not only important for cardiovascular health but for weight control. Losing even a small amount of weight can improve joint health. Shedding even one pound of weight takes four pounds of force off of your knees. So, even modest weight loss can make a difference.
The Bottom Line
Weight training is a joint-friendly activity and can be beneficial even if you have arthritis. However, it’s a good idea to consult with your physician if you have symptomatic arthritis. If you don’t have arthritis, strengthening the muscles that lie over your joints may offer some protection against joint issues. In addition, eating an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help relieve the discomfort of arthritic joints. Whatever you do – keep those joints moving!
National Osteoporosis Foundation
NutraPharm.com. “20 Fast Facts About Osteoarthritis”
Clin Geriatr Med. 2010 Aug; 26(3): 445–459.doi: 10.1016/j.cger.2010.03.006.
Arthritis Care Research News Alerts. 2006;55(2):690-699.
Training Clients with Arthritis. Johndavid Maes, M.S., and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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