I’ve been lucky so far. I might get an occasional twinge in my right knee when I’m not careful about my form during squats in my BodyPump class.
Other than that, my joints feel fine. But I look at other people in middle age or older and I see them struggling to get in and out of cars, or dreading the long walks between gates in airports, or even looking into joint replacement.
It turns out, a lifetime of wear and tear is tough on your joints. Judy Hinojosa, the lead physician and owner of Vitality Natural Health Care, says the most common pain points are the lower back, knees, hips, shoulders, and ankles—the parts of the body used most frequently for repetitive movements.
But a future of Advil and inactivity isn’t inevitable. These steps can help you keep joint pain to a minimum.
1. Optimize your weight
“Excess body fat stresses your joints,” Honojosa says. And not enough body weight could be a problem, too. If you’re underweight you might not have the muscle mass you need to support your joints, ligaments, and tendons.
2. Take care of your feet
Many of us have foot problems—feet that tilt inward or outward, flat feet, exaggerated arches, pigeon toes, bunions, or hammer toes, “Problems with our feet affect our gait, our posture and the way we move our entire bodies,” says Jeanette DePatie, a plus-sized certified fitness trainer and senior specialist. Get your feet checked and get the right shoes or orthotics.
3. Pick up your phone, literally
No one’s asking you to give up your cell phone.“But looking down at our phones is destroying the health of our necks,” says Matt Delgado, a chiropractor with Lifespring Chiropractic in Austin, Texas. Instead, hold your phone up at eye level to keep your head upright.
4. Step away from your desk
“Most of us sit too much in really lousy chairs,” DePatie says. “This is a great way to mess up your back, neck, hips, legs, and really the entire kinetic chain. Get up and walk around every half-hour or so—set a timer if you need to.
Even a one- or two-minute walk can make a difference, says Delgado. When you have to sit, make sure your desk, chair, and monitor are positioned properly for your body. Consider having an ergonomics expert evaluate your workspace.
5. Dance, or train in the martial arts
“They teach you to move your body in a variety of ways and be ready for anything,” says DePatie. When you’re comfortable with moving your body in different ways, you’re better positioned to avoid injuring yourself.
And joints that have been injured are prime targets for arthritis as you get older.
6. Keep your muscles balanced
Joint problems can stem from imbalances in your muscles—think strong quadriceps opposite weak hamstrings. “This can pull joints out of alignment and eventually cause joint problems and pain,” DePatie says. “A personal trainer can help evaluate which muscle groups need strengthening and prescribe exercises that help balance muscles.”
Weight-bearing exercise can also build your bones and help prevent osteoporosis.
7. Lube up your joints with workouts
Hinojosa recommends low-impact options like yoga, Pilates, swimming and biking over sports like tennis, basketball, and running that are harder on the joints.
8. Know where you stand
Proprioception is the sense of where your body is, how it’s positioned, and how it’s moving.
Balance and feedback exercises can help stabilize the muscles around the joints, reduce incorrect pressure on the joint, and train your brain as to where your joint is in space, says Kelsey Zamoyski, an occupational and hand therapist and certified ergonomic assessment specialist at Defy Therapy and Wellness in North Miami Beach, Fla.
A balance or wobble board or ball can help train your sense of proprioception.
9. Drink plenty of water
Hinojosa points out that your cartilage is 70% water: “Staying hydrated helps to maintain its lubrication, so your joints can move freely.”
10. Steer clear of refined sugar
Refined sugar is linked with inflammation, which can make joint pain worse. To further reduce inflammation, eat lots of green, leafy vegetables and take steps to manage stress.
11. Don’t walk it off
If you hurt yourself, see an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist. “Don’t just limp around and assume it will get better,” DePatie says.
Whether it’s part of a class, a yoga practice or a studio stretching session, flexibility is key in keeping our joints healthy. It may also help reduce joint pain and swelling, Hinojosa says.
13. Get to know Venmo
Or at least find a new home for your wallet. Delgado says he sees men with back pain that stems from sitting on their wallets, which holds their pelvises in an awkward position for a long stretch of time.
14. Get enough sleep
Sleep allows your body to heal, points out Zamoyski.
15. If you need physical therapy, stick with it
Sure, you’re busy. And the physical therapist wants to see you twice a week, plus you’re supposed to do a bunch of exercises on your own. It feels like too much.
But keep those appointments, and do those exercises. You’ll boost your odds of avoiding long-term pain.