KEEPING JOINTS HEALTHY AS YOU AGE
Why is joint health important?
Joint health is a ubiquitous problem – it affects all of us at some point and will play a large role in the quality of life you can expect as you age. The muscles, connective tissues (cartilage, ligaments, tendons and fascia) and bones themselves will all become weaker and more susceptible to injury as we age, so it bodes well to pay attention to them in youth. The more time and effort you invest into joint health now, the better your life will be in advanced age. The risks of poor joint health are serious – falls, fractures (both impact and stress), dislocations, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis are all common in the elderly and can be seriously debilitating, often leading to a dangerous cycle of injury and weakness.
This article is going to take you through the precautions you can take to improve the strength, health and resilience of your joints as you age. We don’t expect you to dedicate all your time to pursuing healthier joints, but increasing the number that you incorporate into your life will have noticeable effects now and in the future.
1. Build muscle
Muscle mass isn’t just for good looks: muscle mass is primarily involved in the movement of joints and the protection of joint health during exercise and physical activity. Joints with more muscle mass will be more resilient to injury and osteoarthritis [1, 2], improving the long-term health and mobility of joints. Simply put, more muscle mass around a joint provides stability and insulates it against traumatic and chronic injury. Along with strength training, a healthy diet packed with high quality protein is essential for lean building muscle mass.
Sarcopenia is the systematic loss of muscle across the body that tends to affect us from the age of 50 onwards and is a serious contributor to a loss of mobility and lower quality of life in the elderly. By developing more muscle mass now, we are able to offset the effects of sarcopenia: the more muscle mass you have, the longer it will take to degrade  and the more mobile you’ll be.
2. Strength training
Muscle mass and strength training are often associated, but strength training is also going to contribute to optimal joint health. Strength training is a great way to add muscle mass, but it also serves to improve the strength of connective tissues, improve power and develop stability in the joints above and beyond simply developing muscle mass [2, 3].
For health and longevity, the main focus of strength training should be improving posture, strengthening weak muscles and training in a variety of planes. This means that strength training should focus on unilateral (one-legged, or asymmetrical, exercises), transverse (rotating) and lateral (sideways) movements. These movements simulate the kinds of movements necessary in everyday life and, if performed properly, strengthen the body in these positions whilst teaching healthy, effective movement.
Power training in these movements is essential to long-term health – power has been treated as a special preserve for athletes, but power training should be a constant theme in exercise for people of all ages. Power is the ability to generate force rapidly, and it is closely linked to the ability to protect yourself during falls or other injury-inducing movements . This makes power training essential to minimising the possibility of injury now, as well as in the future.
Strength training also has the great benefit of improving connective tissue health and reactivity. Many of us think of tendons and ligaments as static, but they play a huge role in protecting our muscles and joints from injury by limiting movement. Stronger ligaments and tendons are less prone to injury and more effective at combining with the muscles to act as “shock absorbers” during falls and high-impact movements: “Avoidance of degenerative changes within the tendon is the primary method to prevent rupture. Regular physical activity as athletes age also promotes tendon hypertrophy, increases nutrient delivery, and reduces collagen fiber fatigue” .
3. Mobility and flexibility
Strength, size and force aren’t the only concerns we have about muscles; not only do we need healthy muscle contraction for joint health, but we need the muscles to be pliable and relaxed when at rest in order to keep joints healthy and balanced. Muscle tightness is a serious contributor to the development of chronic joint pain as it can place excessive stress on connective tissues and cause joints to “track” incorrectly. This can result in conditions such as tendonitis, tendinosis and muscle tears.
When there are multiple muscles acting on a joint and one of them is excessively tight, or the others too weak, this is “muscular imbalance”. Muscular imbalance contributes to joint injury by reinforcing poor movement patterns, stressing connective tissues and creating inflammation through the tissues that attach to the joint (either the muscles or connective tissues themselves). Mobility and flexibility are half of the story for improving muscle imbalance – it is necessary to increase the pliability and flexibility of tight muscles, but also to strengthen the under-performing ones. Failure to do both of these will result in the same problems occurring again and again .
Mobility will also play a large role in increasing the range of motion of joints that can be considered “healthy”. Mobility isn’t just about being able to do splits, but determines the range through which you can move without injuring yourself or damaging tissues. If a sedentary individual (couch potato) attempted to do the splits, they would simply injure themselves because they haven’t got the tissue elasticity or neural control to achieve this. This is the same for other joints – mobility is a great way to improve the positions you can put your body in without pain or injury, reducing the chances of injury as you age. Keeping up with a simple daily stretching program or yoga routine is a great way to keep limber.
Remember that movement-based injuries tend to occur at the end of your healthy range of motion, during high-impact movements or when there is already stress/tightness acting on a joint. Mobility will increase the range of motion (effectively decreasing dangerous ranges of motion) and reduce the stress and tightness acting on a joint, whilst strength training and muscle mass contribute to protection against joint impact. A well-rounded routine will incorporate all of these methods and develop a healthy, resilient physique.
4. Dietary support
Everything in this article so far has been about movement – more of it, less of it and healthier ways of moving. However, dietary support for joint health is a huge player and shouldn’t be overlooked: what you eat affects how you move and how you recover. A poor diet will contribute to joint problems whereas a diet with proper nutritional focuses can improve the resilience and health of joints and connective tissues.
Calcium and Potassium
Calcium is the classic mineral for bone and joint health – it has long been used in marketing campaigns to sell dairy products and keep the bones healthy. There is good reason for this: calcium is one of the most common and important minerals in bones, making it essential to bone health and thus joint health. However, calcium is found more readily in dark leafy greens than dairy, so a mixture of the two is advisable if you’re looking to keep your bones and joints healthy.
Potassium is the second most abundant mineral in bones and is approximately as important as calcium: these two compounds make up the majority of the hard, external shell of bones. A deficiency in potassium is just as bad as a calcium deficiency, meaning that it should be treated with equal seriousness in the diet. Potassium is found most commonly in leafy green vegetables, but also in bananas. Clearly, healthy joints require you to eat your greens!
Calcium is nothing without vitamin D, and vitamin D is one of the most common deficiencies in the western diet. We produce vitamin D during exposure to sunlight, but nowhere near enough to fulfil our body’s needs – dietary vitamin D is absolutely necessary for the uptake and use of calcium in the bones. Dairy is often fortified with vitamin D but it is also available in plant foods and even some high nutritional value supplements.
There are a wide variety of joint-support supplements on the market, but we suggest that there are 2 essentials that should be in everyone’s diet. Firstly, it is always essential to supplement fish oil: you probably don’t get nearly enough in your diet and it provides a huge boost of Omega-3 fats, as well as combating joint inflammation (as seen in tendinitis). Fish oil is widely available and inexpensive.
For those who are already suffering with some form of joint pain, our advice (other than rest and ice) is to consume a combination of gelatin and vitamin C. Recent research suggests that this is a promising combination to improve the body’s regeneration of collagenous tissues and begin healing your tendons and ligaments . Many of the joint support supplements on the market can’t compare to these benefits and
Joint health is going to be a concern for future-you: whether you’re willing to work on your joints now or struggle with them in the future is your own choice. Strength training, flexibility work and dietary support are simple ways that you can improve joint health, as well as the wide variety of other health markers they provide. If you follow the suggestions in this article then, all things being equal, you will experience a healthier, happier, longer life – something that we all aim for and can be achieved with small lifestyle changes.