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Body Hack #1: How to look after your joints

THE BODY HACK SERIES:

My 40’s are looming and while I don’t normally take much notice of age I’m finding myself becoming just a little bit paranoid about my health. My mom has arthritis and I can’t help wonder if my joints are destined to give me trouble in the future. I would really like to be able to stay active and enjoy life right into old age. This has prompted me to create the Body Hack Series of which this article is the first of 4. I also do weekly livestreams in my Facebook Group where I discuss these topics in a bit more detail and you can ask questions. Please feel free to join and request topics!

In this articles:

  • What are joints actually?

  • Why movement is important for joints

  • How strong muscles can protect joints

  • What exercise is best for joints?

  • Is it worth using joint supplements?

I also discussed this topic in the Sports Injury Group:



What are joints actually?


Most of your joints in your body are synovial joints. Take for example your main knee joint (the knee actually has 3 joints, but for demonstrative purposes let’s pretend there’s just one). It is formed where the thigh bone (femur) meets the shin bone (tibia).


The bony surfaces are covered in very smooth cartilage. They are held together by a thick fibrous capsule that fully surrounds the joint.


The joint is filled with synovial fluid. Synovial fluid has a similar consistency to egg white and helps to reduce friction inside the joint. It is also the main transport system to get nutrients and oxygen to the different parts of the joint.


Your joints and the cartilage that covers the bones don’t have any blood vessels inside them. They rely fully on the synovial fluid to get enough nutrients and oxygen. Which brings me to my next point.


Adapted from original image by Nevit Dilmen at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medical_X-Ray_imaging_ADH02_nevit.jpg

Why movement is important for joints


As mentioned above, joints don’t have arteries and veins inside them and have to get all their nutrients and oxygen from the synovial fluid. They rely on the changes in pressure created when you move them to force fresh nutrients and oxygen into the joint and cartilage.


In short, you need to move joints regularly to keep them healthy and well fed. This is one of the reasons why you can feel so stiff after sitting for a few hours. I have written in the past about how sitting for long periods can affect your hip joints in particularly.


Top tip: Make sure that you take regular breaks from sitting during the day. Don’t just stand up for a second and stretch – go for a quick 2 minute walk or run up the stairs to move your joints and feed them properly.


How strong muscles can protect joints


Your joints are not supposed to take all the force when you move. Take your hips for instance. Around 60% of the force that goes through your legs when you walk is meant to be absorbed by the muscles that surround your hips. If your muscles aren’t strong enough, your joints will have to take more force and may become overused and injured.


The knees are another good example. Every treatment programme for knee pain usually starts with some sort of strengthening or activation exercise for the thigh muscles.


What exercise is best for joints?


From the discussion above it should be obvious that you need two types of exercise.

  1. Exercise that moves the joints and improve their nutrition. Examples include swimming, cycling, running, walking and cross trainer. If your joints are sore or you have a condition like arthritis, you may benefit more from non-weightbearing exercise where you get a lot of movement but do not have a lot of force going through the joint e.g. cycling or swimming.

  2. Strength training to build strong muscles that support and protect your joints. Examples include weight training, gym machines and bodyweight training. You don’t have to go to a gym to achieve this. Other activities like wall climbing can provide very effective strength training for the whole body.



Is it worth using joint supplements?


When I started researching this questions, I was overwhelmed by the number of herbs, pills and other substances people claim can protect joints. Most of them don’t seem to have any solid research to back them up, so I have chosen some of the most prominent ones to discuss here.


Chondroitin and Glucosamine

Supplements containing chondroitin and glucosamine are touted as being able to protect joints and rebuild cartilage. Looking at the research, I’m not convinced that these supplements are worth taking.


Research studies conducted by independent research groups have consistently found very little benefit from using chondroitin and glucosamine.  On the other hand, research studies funded by the large pharmaceutical companies have shown that they are effective. Hmmmm, anyone else smell a rat?


Ginger

The evidence shows that ginger can hold modest benefits for people who suffer with arthritis. What this means is that it may decrease your pain slightly.


Turmeric

Turmeric contains curcumin which has been shown to have positive effects on joint cartilage. Just how much you need has not yet been established. Tumeric on it's own is also not useful as the curcumin has to be activated by combining it with black pepper. It is therefor advised that you rather use it in food than take it as a supplement.


A balanced diet

Green and colleagues have written a very interesting article in which they looked at what foods and nutrients can potentially help to protect your joints or to treat arthritis. Guess what, nearly every Vitamin you can think of contributes something towards joint health. Then you also get other bioactive components like flavonoids, flavonols, plant sterols etc. that all play an important role.


So I would suggest that, before you rush off to buy tonnes of one supplement or nutrient rather consider the quality of your general diet. Incorporate lots of fruit and veg and use spices like turmeric and ginger when you cook.


Sugar, alcohol and processed foods

Diets high in sugar, alcohol and processed foods have been shown to contribute to chronic inflammation in the body which in turn isn’t good for your joints. All the more reason to take an honest look at your diet.


Let me know if you have any questions. Remember to join my Facebook Group where you can watch weekly livestreams on a variety of injury prevention and treatment topics.

Best wishes

Maryke



About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.



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