Exercise and joint health

When it comes to joint health and exercise, there are a lot of common opinions running around which have become part of the everyday narrative. ‘Jogging is bad for your joints’,’ My doctor said it’s wear and tear due to being sporty all my life’, ‘I need to be careful with my knees as I get lots of problems with them’,’ My joints can’t handle that (insert exercise/movement) anymore’. It’s no wonder we’re all so shaky about just how to exercise for optimum joint health.

Unfortunately, many of these ingrained preconceptions are somewhat misleading and outdated, despite still being peddled by some members of the medical community! At best, these apprehensions lead to confusion around how to best look after your joints through exercise (Not helped in the least bit by the myriad of conflicting opinions on social media). At worst, they lead to fear around the strength of the joint and, in turn, a diminished active life whilst a person tries to ‘protect’ their distressed joint.

So, what beneficial effects could exercise have on joints? Are there any harmful effects of exercise and movement on a joint? And does exercise damage joints?

The benefits of exercise on joint health

Let me get this out of the way. Exercise does not wear away your joints! Quite the opposite is true. Regular weight-bearing movement is essential to building a healthy cartilage in the joint. Because cartilage does not have its own blood supply, it must get its nutrients from the joint fluid that bathes it. Exercise compresses joints, forcing more nutrient-rich fluid into cartilage. [1]

The impact of exercise on arthritis

Indeed, even in the case of osteoarthritis, a chronic musculoskeletal disease whereby the joints become inflamed and the joint cartilage degenerates, exercise is considered the first port of call for maintaining joint health and quality of life. A recent study on the impact of a 12-week exercise programme on 1,593 adult participants with osteoarthritis completed the Nuffield Health Joint Pain Programme states that, Evidence demonstrates that exercise interferes with the progression of OA by affecting pathological changes such as articular cartilage degradation, apoptosis, and the inflammatory response. [2] Likewise with the chronic, systemic, autoimmune disease Rheumatoid Arthritis, moderate exercise is encouraged, without exception, to limit the comorbidities, which reduce a sufferer’s quality of life. [3]

Exercising for arthritic joints

Exercising for arthritic joints

Exercising our way to healthier joints

Exercise does not only benefit the joint by increasing the flow of nutrients to it and strengthening the cartilage. Movement helps keep our muscles strong and its surrounding fascia fluid, which consequently offers support and structural tensegrity[4] to our joints. By keeping the structures around the joint strong and mobile, we help our joints stay adaptive and resilient to moving through life.

It is often thought that repetitive exercises such as running can wear the joints down over time. However, multiple long-term studies comparing trail groups of runners to their non-running counterparts, have proven this not to be the case. One recent study found a significantly higher risk of knee OA progressing to total knee replacement among non-runners and that running may even protect against generalised knee pain. [5]

The importance of tensegrity when exercising for joint health

The importance of tensegrity for joint health

Trusting your body

Along with the physiological benefits of exercise on joint health, there are also numerous benefits associated with a person’s ability to navigate and manage pain when it occurs. Research has demonstrated tangible benefits in people’s perception of health, behavioural responses to pain, and self-management strategies following engagement in exercise. [6] Regular exercise builds a healthy dialogue with our bodies, in which we learn to trust in the resiliency of our joints and our body’s ability to self-heal. Our joints are way tougher than we’re often led to believe they are. By challenging ourselves with different movement patterns and loads we come to understand, just how strong we have the potential to be both physically and mentally.

The negative effects of exercise on joint health

So, just what factors could be contributing to poor joint health? There are numerous risk factors for developing OA including older age, female gender, obesity, anatomical factors, muscle weakness, and joint injury. [7] Of the last-mentioned factor, making sure that you approach your exercise routine mindfully, by using progressive exposure and loading, will help prevent against injury, and in turn the diminished health of your joints. 

If you notice increased pain, swelling or excess heat in the joint, then this could be a sign that you’ve been overdoing it. Warming up and cooling down, as well as including regular stretching and other muscular release techniques such as massage, will reduce your risk of musculoskeletal injuries. And remember that exercising for joint health is all about balance. Adequate rest and recovery are key to helping you bound back to life again after intense activity. 

The mistake made by many sporty individuals as they move through the later decades of their lives, is to focus primarily on cardiovascular forms of exercise. Whilst it’s undeniable that cardio needs to play an important role in your exercise routine to keep the heart healthy, resistance training should also start co-featuring from your 40s onwards as a leading protagonist. 

The benefits of weightlifting on joint health for ladies

The benefits of weightlifting on joint health for ladies

Aerobic training and other forms of low-impact exercise, such as cycling and swimming, have been shown to have little or no effect on bone health. [8] Therefore, some form of weekly resistance training such as lifting weights, sets on the gym machines or using resistance bands, is essential to maintain bone mineral density and reduce the risk of weak bones which are prone to fracture. This is particularly relevant to ladies of menopausal age, who suffer from a dramatic decrease in bone density due to hormonal changes, leaving them at high risk of suffering from osteoporosis. [9]

Take the leap!

As we can see the benefits of exercise way outweigh the negative effects of exercise on your joint health. Not only will exercising help create healthier tissues and bones, but it will also help to protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and a whole wealth of other health complications. What more could you need to encourage you to leap into a more active lifestyle?

That said, exercising without listening to your body, could end up in over-stressing your joints, resulting in injury. Added to this holding excess physical tension, whether that be through over-training or psychological factors, may result in your body putting pressure on your nerves and cranking up the pain response in your joints. 

We will inevitably all suffer from aches and pains from time to time. But finding a balance between cardiovascular exercise, strength training, stretching and quality rest time, will build mental and physical endurance and act as movement-induced medicine for your joints. Meaning that you can carry on dancing to the beat of your drum way into your golden years.

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[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/exercise-and-your-joints

[2] Smith, J. L., Innes, A. Q., Burns, D. S., Deniszczyc, D., Selfe, J., MacConville, S., Deighton, K., & Kelly, B. M. (2023). A scalable 12-week exercise and education programme reduces symptoms and improves function and wellbeing in people with hip and knee osteoarthritis. Frontiers in Rehabilitation Sciences4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fresc.2023.1147938

[3] (Cooney, J. K., Law, J., Matschke, V., Lemmey, A. B., Moore, J. P., Ahmad, Y., Jones, J. G., Maddison, P., & Thom,

[4] https://www.anatomytrains.com/fascia/tensegrity/

[5] Dhillon, J., Kraeutler, M. J., Belk, J. W., Scillia, A. J., McCarty, E. C., Ansah-Twum, J. K., & McCulloch, P. C. (2023). Effects of Running on the Development of Knee Osteoarthritis: An Updated Systematic Review at Short-Term Follow-up. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine11(3), 23259671231152900. https://doi.org/10.1177/23259671231152900

[6] Hurley, M. V., Mitchell, H. L., & Walsh, N. (2003). In osteoarthritis, the psychosocial benefits of exercise are as important as physiological improvements. Exercise and sport sciences reviews31(3), 138–143. https://doi.org/10.1097/00003677-200307000-00007

[7] https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/exercise-and-your-joints

[8] Massini, D. A., Nedog, F. H., De Oliveira, T. P., Almeida, T. A., Santana, C. A., Neiva, C. M., Macedo, A. G., Castro, E. A., Espada, M. C., Santos, F. J., & Pessôa Filho, D. M. (2022). The Effect of Resistance Training on Bone Mineral Density in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Healthcare10(6), 1129. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10061129

[9] De Villiers, T. J. (2023). Bone health and menopause: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 101782. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beem.2023.101782

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