As the links that connect your bones together, joints and ligaments must stay strong and healthy. Repetitive stress, sudden injury, chronic health conditions and even lack of exercise can all damage these key structures, causing them to break down over time. The result? Chronic pain and immobility that can put a stop to your favorite workouts. Eventually, you might even count yourself among the 54 million adults with arthritis in the U.S. — if you aren’t already.
So, when should you start thinking about the health of your joints and ligaments? “If you ask somebody when you should prepare financially for retirement, they would say, ‘Long before now.’ And that’s really the same for this,” says Matthew J. Garver, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology and Psychological Science at the University of Central Missouri.
If you want to stay active and pain-free for the long-haul, it’s time to practice these key strategies for keeping your joints and ligaments healthy.
Strength training and cardiovascular exercise are important for total-body health: heart, muscles, blood vessels, bones, brain and — of course — joints. “Motion is lotion,” Garver says. Moving and challenging your joints through regular exercise helps circulate blood, synovial fluid (a fluid found in some joints that helps reduce friction) and nutrients through them, while strengthening the muscles and ligaments that support those joints.
In fact, increasing physical activity helped previously sedentary adults with knee osteoarthritis (a “wear-and-tear” joint condition) move more easily, according to a 2016 study.
At a minimum, get 150 minutes of cardio (that’s 30 minutes, 5 days per week) and perform two full-body strength workouts per week, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Choose something you love, because that’s what you’ll continue to do,” Garver says.
Regular exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is important for reducing stress on your joints.
WARM UP BEFORE EXERCISE
While exercise is important for keeping joints and ligaments healthy, be sure to prepare your joints for whatever movement you have planned, especially if that movement is more intense than you’re used to. A simple warmup routine gets your joints moving through a greater range of motion, “shows the body that additional blood flow is going to be necessary, prepares the energy system to create energy more efficiently, and also lubricates the joints,” Garver says. If you try to exercise while your muscles and joints are cold and stiff, you face a greater risk of injury.
MODIFY EXERCISE AS NEEDED
High-impact forms of exercise like running and jumping aren’t necessarily bad for your joints. In fact, running can be protective of your knee joints in particular. “Every time your foot lands, your articular cartilage is going to squish against each other, and that cartilaginous squishing actually helps move the fluid. As the fluid moves, you sweep away metabolic waste and bring nutrients back toward you,” Garver says. “That squishing of the cartilage can be healthy.”
However, if you run with muscle weakness or bad mechanics, or you run more than your body is ready to handle, you may cause joint damage and pain. So, if you’re dealing with arthritis or another form of joint pain that worsens during or after certain activities, you may need to find gentler options. Low-impact forms of cardio like swimming, cycling, rowing and the elliptical machine can help you build fitness without stressing your joints. A knowledgeable personal trainer can help you find the best activities and teach you how to perform exercises with proper form.
Once you find exercises that don’t cause discomfort or pain, do as much as you can manage. “If you can’t get up and engage in 20–30 minutes of an activity, I’m OK with that. Get up and move for 5–10 minutes at a time,” Garver says. A little bit goes a long way.
EAT A HEALTHY DIET
A well-balanced diet can lower inflammation (a hallmark of joint pain), while providing you with adequate amounts of nutrients that promote joint health, such as calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein. While lean protein sources, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats are all solid food options, fatty fish (or fish oil supplements), dark leafy greens, berries and cherries, olive oil, and spices like turmeric may be especially beneficial for your joints.
Eating a healthy diet can also help you maintain a good balance of calories, which is key for keeping your body weight under control. “If we control our body weight, we do a whole lot of good for our joints,” Garver says. Not to mention, you’ll lower your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety.
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