Being able to move freely is amazing and to do it we need healthy joints. When joints are in good working condition, we rarely think about them. Unfortunately, for many of us, joint stiffness and pain are common. Osteoarthritis, or as it is often simply called, “arthritis”, is one of those common joint issues. Osteoarthritis is a complicated medical condition for which the exact cause is unknown. What is known and well-documented are its risk factors: being physically inactive, overweight, older (over 55), and following an unhealthy diet.
With the advances of modern life, we have in general become more sedentary, and the occurrence of arthritis has dramatically increased. A sedentary lifestyle clearly weakens our muscles and ligaments. These structures surround and support the joints and are extremely important for joint health and proper function.
Inactivity also predisposes us to weight gain; the heavier we are, the more stress there is on the weight-bearing joints, and consequently the harder those joints must work; but it is not a beneficial type of work. Without adequate support from the weakened muscles and ligaments, joints start to deteriorate. Being overweight increases the overall inflammation in the body, worsening the structure of joints and increasing pain. Losing excess weight plays a significant part in helping to improve joint health.
Aging is inevitable, but there are ways to lessen its negative effects. There is an overall tendency to slow down as we get older; we lose muscle mass and get tired easier. However, movement is crucial to keeping not only the joints but also the whole body healthy.
Motion works like a lotion for our musculoskeletal system. Moving the body keeps joints and muscles lubricated and in good working condition. For some people, being active is natural and easy, while others must work at it. Finding the right activity is the key to success when it comes to making movement an enjoyable daily routine and a lifelong engagement.
Each person is unique, with different needs and abilities, but all can benefit from a daily walk. Walking is a simple yet powerful way to become stronger, calmer, and healthier. If you are coming from a place of little to no physical activity, starting simple and building up as you safely progress in strength and endurance is especially important.
Sometimes we all need a little inspiration and support. If you enjoy athletic camaraderie, then consider joining a fitness class. Tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art form, has proven to be effective in strengthening muscles and joints when taught competently with proper body alignment in mind. The benefits of practicing tai chi, besides joint health, are numerous; better balance and flexibility, sharper mental focus and a calmer spirit. Being active and social promotes better physical and mental health.
Stretching is another favorite recommendation of mine to maintain healthy joints. To combat stiffness that occurs naturally with age or after certain exercises, maintain a daily stretching routine and make it a mindful practice. Weather you do it in the morning, before bedtime, or after a workout, stretching improves joints’ range-of-motion and strengthens mind-muscle connection. This insures that you get greater movement efficiency long-term.
As always, start conservatively, listen to your body and focus as you stretch. Remember that stretching as a slight tension, not pain, is done to improve mobility, not to get injured and discouraged.
I recognize that everyone is a unique individual, and I tailor physical therapy recommendations to the patient's specific needs and abilities. However, here are a few general stretching principles to follow:
1. Warm up the muscles before you stretch. To avoid injury, warm up before you perform a static muscle stretch (that is when you stretch and hold). Five minutes of general warming up body movements should prepare the muscles to stretch and endure with more ease.
2. Practice functional or dynamic stretching before working out. Dynamic stretching should imitate the activity you are about to do. For example, walk slowly for a few minutes before you walk fast or jog, do gentle arm circles in the air before you enter the pool to swim, etc. The idea is to warm up the muscles, increase circulation, and prepare the body for more intense activity and better physical form.
3. Stretch after a workout. Experts have debated the effectiveness of stretching before a workout, but most agree that stretching as a cool-down activity is beneficial. A five-to-ten-minute stretch of warmed up muscles and joints improves their long-term flexibility and range of motion. Personally, I make this a mindfulness activity and use my internal focus to breathe through the stretches and concentrate on the muscles and joint spaces that I am stretching.
If you are already lean and active and experience joint pain, it is important to examine the quality of your exercise routine. If being active causes or worsens the pain, something needs to be changed to prevent this becoming a chronic problem. Your health provider or a physical trainer should be able to analyze and adjust your activity to restore health. Movement must be joyous; frequent pain and disability sets the stage for burnout and subsequent inactivity.
Lastly, remember that movement is an important...but not the only...part of a healthy lifestyle. Stay tuned for healthy joints, diet and nutrition tips.
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