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Eat your way to healthier joints

Most of us don’t give our joints a thought until a wrench from a sports injury or simple ageing becomes a pain in the neck (or knee, or hip, or toe…) Protecting our joints is a lifelong affair. Read our tips on eating, sleeping and training your way to healthier joints.

Without our joints, we wouldn’t be able to bend or swivel our knees, elbows, fingers, wrists and back, turn our head and wiggle our hips. They connect our bones and cushion them to prevent the bones from rubbing together. How our joints and bones weather depends on our genes, lifestyle and general wear and tear. The cartilage in our joints can be damaged by injury, carrying excess weight, bad posture and age. All of these cause wear and tear that can lead to arthritis. It’s not enough to simply look after our joints, however. Healthy joints require strong, stable bones, muscles and ligaments.

Starting with bones
Bone health is important at every age. Bones start developing in the foetus and this process continues until peak bone mass is reached, usually when a person is in their mid to late thirties. Actually, bone formation is never really complete. Bone, as living tissue, constantly renews itself by breaking down older bone and replacing it with new bone. As we age, however, bone resorption (where the minerals are reabsorbed by the body) becomes faster, causing bones to to become weaker, brittle and thin as we age. Women should have a bone density scan at around age 50 to see how well their bones are doing, especially if they are small-framed, and have started menopause.

If there are signs of osteoporosis, it’s not too late. There are medical treatments that slow down bone loss and increase bone mass.

As always, what we eat is also vitally important: A diet rich in calcium helps to keep bones strong and lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Milk is an obvious source of calcium, but yoghurt, kale, broccoli, salmon and figs are also excellent sources. Calcium supplements may be needed if an individual does not get enough from their diet, particularly children and adolescent girls, but also adults over 50.

The body also needs vitamin D to help it absorb calcium properly, so getting adequate vitamin D is also important. Our bodies naturally make vitamin D when we are exposed to the sun, but it can also be found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and foods fortified with vitamin D.

Sadly caffeine is a bone-weakener, so check your coffee habit.

Muscle matters
Strong muscles support joints. If there is insufficient muscle, joints tend to take a bit of a beating. It’s very important to include some sort of weight-training exercise in your keep-fit regime in order to build muscle and keep ligaments strong. It’s a good idea to also include exercises such as Pilates to strengthen your core, because a strong core helps with balance and stability, and can help to prevent falls that may result in joint damage.

What you eat is important here too. You need protein to build strong muscles. Make sure your diet includes lean meats, seafood, beans, legumes, soy products, and nuts.

Looking at lifestyle
Lifestyle choices hugely influence whether or not we survive to old age with healthy joints. Carrying extra weight obviously puts extra strain on joints, particularly the knees, hips and back, and it also increases the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Smoking can also reduce bone mass, not to mention the fact that smokers have a greater risk of fractures.

Exercise of some kind has a double benefit, strengthening muscles and also helping to maintain healthy weight. Aerobic exercise is good for reducing joint swelling, and exercises like cycling and swimming are particularly recommended as they get your heart rate up without putting extra strain on joints.

If you’re tied to a desk all day, make sure you get up and move around often, as sitting all day is a sure fire way to joint stiffness. If possible, talk a short walk at some point during your day.

Believe it or not, posture is important — not only does good posture help to protect joints, it is also important when lifting and carrying particularly heavy items. Try exercises like Pilates or yoga which are designed to improve posture and strengthen the spine. Be conscious of your posture when using a computer or cellphone and avoid straining your neck – read our story on Tech neck here. If you can — get rid of your high heels — your knees will eventually thank you!

Joints and your diet
Omega 3 fatty acids, found in cold water fish such as salmon and mackerel, and from plant sources like flaxseed, can help to keep joints healthy, as well as reducing inflammation in stiff joints. As most of us don’t get nearly enough omega 3s from our diet, supplements are probably a good idea.

Eating a colourful diet is not only pleasing to the eye but — you guessed it — it’s also very important when considering joint health. Choosing a variety of colourful fruit and vegetables will ensure that you get the right mix of antioxidants, fibre and phytochemicals. Oranges are your joints’ friend as they are full of vitamin C — which recent research suggests also helps to reduce osteoarthritis.

To supplement or not?
Glucosamine, a supplement made from the shells of lobster, crab and shrimp, has been shown to ease joint pain and stiffness, while some studies have suggested that it may actually contribute to cartilage repair.

Chondroitin is found naturally in our connective tissue. It is often taken as a supplement as a treatment for osteoarthritis, often in conjunction with glucosamine. Evidence that chondroitin actually helps is mixed. Some researchers have found that it helped to reduce pain and increase joint mobility, while other studies have been less promising.

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a chemical found in plants, animals and humans, and is often used to treat chronic pain, osteoarthritis, joint inflammation and a list of other maladies. MSM provides sulfur, a vital building block of joints, cartilage, skin, hair and nails, and methyl groups, which support many vital biochemical processes. Once again, there is very little published scientific research to support its use, but those who do use it say it is effective.

As always, it’s best to discuss any supplements with your doctor, particularly if you are already taking other medication.

Our last advice
Apart from eating well, exercising, making sensible lifestyle choices and taking supplements when necessary, relieve aches and pains by getting regular massages — a standing appointment every couple of months with a sports, Thai or physiotherapy massage can keep you limber and help prevent an emergency session when your back seizes up; indulge in occasional long baths to relieve pain, and get a good night’s sleep on a mattress that doesn’t hurt your back.

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