How to Boost Your Joint Health and Lengthen Your Life

Expert-approved foods, moves and tips to help you live a long and limber life.

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Joint pain is too often seen as an unavoidable side effect of aging—and is too often why people skip activities they love. But another birthday doesn’t have to mean aching joints or a seat on the sidelines.

An active lifestyle, including regular exercise, is one of the best ways to both boost joint health and live longer. What are some other healthy habits that can strengthen your joints and lengthen your life?

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Set small, doable weight loss goals

Being overweight puts unnecessary pressure on your joints. It also increases your risk of life threatening illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer.

But even if you need to lose a large amount of weight in the long run to improve your overall health, don’t look at it that way, says Sean McMillan, DO, an orthopedic surgeon from Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, in Willingboro NJ.

“Focus on losing five pounds at a time. If you can do that, you’re taking a pretty significant amount of weight off your joints: For every pound you lose, about three to five pounds of pressure is taken off your hips and knees,” explains Dr. McMillan.

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“Move naturally” and keep moving

Residents of Blue Zones, or places where people reach age 100 at higher rates than anywhere else on earth, share an important habit. They “move naturally,” or exercise often by building movement into their daily routines.

Staying active is one of the best ways to lower your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, plus it can both prevent and ease joint pain.

Do you get stiff when you sit still for a long time? That’s because inactivity allows fluid to pool around your joints, causing swelling, stiffness and discomfort. Once you get moving, the swelling goes down and stiffness decreases. 

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Try these joint-friendly exercises

Are you motivated to exercise, but achy joints keep getting in the way? Opt for low or no-impact activities, recommends McMillan. For example, try water aerobics at your local YMCA; the buoyancy eases the pressure on your joints, while you get an excellent cardio workout. Other low-impact exercises include:

  • Walking—“move naturally” by parking further away from the store entrance or getting off the bus a stop early
  • Riding the stationary or recumbent bike, set to low resistance
  • Using the elliptical machine

Avoid exercises that involve twisting or that place “pounding” pressure on your joints like running, the rowing machine, kneeling, lunges and squats. 

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Stretch to stay limber and prevent injuries

Stretching can reduce stiffness in the morning, lubricate your joints and prevent injuries during exercise. In fact, daily stretching may help older adults stay mobile and live independently for longer periods of time.

Tight muscles can strain or pull your joints in the wrong direction. “But stretching loosens your muscles and helps them to fire appropriately,” explains McMillan.

Aim to stretch for 15 minutes daily. “You want to stretch to a point where you feel mild discomfort, but not pain. You don't want to cause damage or a tear by pushing yourself too much,” he adds. Ease into your stretch and avoid “bouncing” to reach further.

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Take standing breaks at work

Good posture can keep you from leaning or twisting in a way that puts unnecessary strain on your joints. It can also boost your energy and productivity, strengthen your core muscles and ease chronic headaches. To avoid slouching at work:

  • Raise your computer so the center of it is at or just below eye level
  • Keep your head and neck in line with your torso
  • Make sure your back is straight, but relaxed

Another trick: Switch to a standing desk if you start hunching over. Changing positions can get your blood flowing and relieve stiffness. Since sitting all day puts you at risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes, alternating between desks may also add years to your life.

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Eat more salmon

The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon help to slow the buildup of cholesterol plaque, decrease high blood pressure and reduce your risk of early death from heart disease.

“Eating salmon also supports healthy joints,” says McMillan. “There are a number of possible mechanisms for this, but omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in reducing inflammation.” For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis experienced fewer symptoms when taking fish oil supplements in clinical trials. But opt for fresh fish when possible and always talk to your healthcare provider before trying a new supplement. 

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Snack on fresh cherries

“Eat fresh cherries to curb the inflammation that causes gout and arthritis pain,” recommends McMillan. Eating just 10 cherries a day may reduce your risk of a gout flare up by 50 percent, according to a study from Arthritis & Rheumatism.

“Cherries contain anthocyanins,” he explains. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that reduce inflammation and give the fruit its red color. Choose tart cherries like the Montmorency variety to get the most antioxidants.

Cherries may even help you live longer. Cherry juice helped to limit the spread of cancer cells in early lab studies, although more research is needed to learn if they offer cancer protection in humans as well.

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Avoid these supplement mistakes

“Joint supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration,” warns McMillan. “So not every supplement is the same. Even if you do your research, the product you buy might contain other ingredients or have an incorrect label.” Supplements come with possible side effects too:

  • Glucosamine: “If you have diabetes, glucosamine may actually raise your blood sugar,” explains McMillan.
  • Fish oil: “Fish oil is great for joint and heart health, but if you have a bleeding disorder, it can increase your risk of unsafe bleeding,” he adds.

The bottom line: Talk to your healthcare provider before trying any new supplement.

Learn more about Dr. McMillan.

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