How to care for your joints
Jordan Dehara, a physiotherapist at Benenden Hospital, gives tips on exercising safely as we age
Joints hold our skeleton together. They are involved in all kinds of movements, whether it’s running around after younger family members, doing the gardening or yomping up hills. Like many things, joints naturally degenerate with age. Warning signs your joints are suffering include a general stiffness, particularly around weight-bearing joints such as ankles, knees and hips, as well as around the lower back and neck.
While we can’t beat the ageing process, we can prevent its acceleration by making positive lifestyle choices and not moving too little or too violently. Taking gentle exercise often, and allocating time each week for specific strengthening exercises, helps keep joints supple and strong as you mature. Choosing to walk short journeys, rather than jump in the car or on the bus, really does make a difference over years, and hobbies such as cycling, swimming and dancing will keep you fit as time goes by.
How to care for your joints - quick links
Seven expert tips to help you care for and strengthen your joints:
Seven ways to care for your joints
“Most of the time people worry about flexibility but don’t pay enough attention to staying strong,” says Jordan Dehara, a physiotherapist at Benenden Hospital. He recommends doing 30 minutes of strength-training exercises three times a week, either following a gym programme (ask a trainer for advice) or at home, using resistance bands and household items such as tins and water bottles as weights.
Consistency is key, says Dehara: “It takes around three months of exercise three to four times a week to see any lasting improvement in muscle growth.”
2. Manage your weight
Staying a healthy weight ensures your joints are supported by muscle but are not under too much strain. “Every extra kilo you carry on your body translates as three to four extra kilos going through your knee when you take a step,” says Dehara. “If that weight is muscle, it supports your joints, but if it’s fat there isn’t any extra function. It’s just pressure on your joints.”
Being underweight is unhelpful too. He warns: “If you aren’t taking on enough calories or aren’t eating healthily, then you’re not able to build that all-important protective muscle that goes around bones and joints, helping to move and support them. Worse still, the body burns through important structures, and feeds on muscle tissue. If your muscles can’t take the flak, your joints take it instead.”
3. Avoid smoking and excess alcohol
Smoking and excessive drinking are bad habits for your joint health because they negatively impact circulation, explains Dehara. “Poor circulation speeds up the degenerative process and prevents healthy healing. That’s why, when someone has injured a joint, if they are a heavy smoker, you can expect their recovery to be delayed (or even incomplete) in comparison to a non-smoker.”
4. Take your time
Don’t let your ego take charge of your exercise routine, says Dehara: “You lose muscle much more quickly than you grow it and working too hard, too soon can put extreme pressure on your joints.”
Progress slowly and comfortably. Do three sets of five of each exercise – for example, squats, press-ups and step-ups – in the morning and the same in the evening, three times a week. Every week add just one repetition to each set until you get to 10!
Also watch out for signs that you are overloading your joints during exercise. “You should expect to feel a bit of muscle soreness the evening and next day after a workout, particularly if you’ve been away from fitness. However, major discomfort and pain indicates you’ve gone too hard,” says Dehara.
5. Warm up intelligently
Always warm up before your main workout, says Dehara: “If your body is not prepared you may put unnecessary pressure on joints and risk injury.”
The type of warm-up you do is important too. “Warm up by replicating, in miniature, the exercise you want to do. So, if you’re going for a run, do some active or ‘ballistic’ stretching, such as kicking your legs out in front of you while walking, to stretch out your hamstring. Passive stretches (standing still and holding a stretch) will not prepare that muscle to quickly shorten and lengthen.”
It’s the same for warming up areas around other joints. If you’re going to be lifting 20kg of weights, do the same movement multiple times with 5kg to warm up.
6. Move every half hour
‘Motion is lotion’, as health professionals are fond of saying. That’s why desk-workers should stand up and walk about every 30-45 minutes rather than stay in the same position for long periods.
“People talk about ‘good posture’ and think certain positions are better than others but it’s more about changing positions a lot,” says Dehara. “When you move, the body produces a natural lubricant for the joint lining. Also, tissue grows continually so if you sit in one position for eight hours a day it literally grows over in those positions, causing tightness in specific areas. Alternatively, when you move, you stretch and tear that new tissue and you get less tight!”
7. Don’t ignore problems. Ask for help. Don’t stress
Two weeks is about the time it takes after an injury for swelling to come up and go down again naturally as the body works its healing magic, says Dehara. If pain persists, it’s time to get medical advice. “I often see people who come for physiotherapy six to nine months after the original injury. By then, the issue has got serious and treating it is much more challenging.”
Asking for help from a pharmacist, GP or physiotherapist also reduces your stress, which helps healing. “If you stress about an issue, your brain sends signals to that area to go into an even more protective state, causing stiffness and more pain.”
Three warning signs of a sports injury
Jordan Dehara shares the signs to look out for
Swelling and heat
“If a joint swells, goes red or gets hot you may have irritated or damaged a structure. You may then be unable to contract muscles around that area, because your brain asks the muscle to tighten up to hold the joint tighter.”
Loss of function
“If you lose function of an area – a torn leg or hip muscle, for example – you probably can’t stretch that muscle out or use it much and you may even have a limp. That’s a clear sign something’s damaged.”
Changes in sensations in nearby areas
“If you get numbness in an area, suffer pins and needles (in your face, or down the arm, for example), or headaches or blurred vision, it could be sign of an injury somewhere nearby.”
How can Benenden Health help?
Check out the Wellbeing Hub on the Benenden Health App for fitness classes for all levels.
Benenden Health provides affordable private healthcare for everyone, including businesses, giving members access to services such as our 24/7 GP Helpline and Mental Health Helpline straight away. If you’ve been a member for six months, you can request access to diagnostic consultations and tests, physiotherapy, and if needed, treatment and surgery. Physiotherapy treatment may be provided via self-managed exercise or up to six face-to-face or remote sessions. Members can also self-pay for physiotherapy at Benenden Hospital.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in May 2023. Next review date: May 2024.