10 Tips for Healthy Knees and Strong Joints as You Age

From regular exercise to eating well, there are many things you can do to protect your joints. Try these tips for healthy knees and maintaining joint health. 

By Mary Anne Dunkin | Feb. 16, 2023

One of the largest and most complex joints of the body, the knee is crucial to movement, which means protecting knee joints should be a priority. Our knees make it possible for us to walk, jump, dance, pedal a bicycle, climb steps or ladders, kick balls or tires, squat to sit, or bend to lift a child – all while bearing the weight of our bodies.   

The knee is also one of the joints most prone to pain, injury and many forms of arthritis. If we live long enough, most will experience knee problems at some point. But there are ways to minimize the impact of knee problems. Practicing a healthy lifestyle and good body mechanics may even help reduce the risk of their development and progression. 

Try these tips for healthy knees. 

1. Get moving. Your joints were designed for movement. Regular physical activity can help your knees and other joints in a number of ways, including:
  • relieving pain and stiffness
  • strengthening the muscles that provide support to the knees
  • reducing weight gain that puts excess stress on knees
  • improving  balance to decrease your risk of falls and injuries to the knees and other joints.
It’s important to pick exercises that are gentle and safe to decrease your risk of joint injury and to try a combination of activities that promote flexibility and range of motion (such as yoga or exercises prescribed by a physical therapist), muscle strengthening (such as working out with weight machines or resistance bands), or cardiovascular fitness (such as walking, swimming or bicycling). Physical therapy for knee arthritis can help keep your knees functioning at their best.

2. Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, every excess pound puts additional stress on your knees that can increase cartilage wear — and pain. Research shows that for people with osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, losing even a little weight can help, but losing more if your obese can help significantly. In one study overweight or obese adults who lost 20% or more of their body weight reported less pain and could walk farther in a six-minute test than those who lost less than 5% of their body weight. 

Although it makes sense that excess weight can be harmful to knees — which bear the body’s weight — the weight-joint connection is more complex than just the mechanical forces extra pounds put on the knees. Fat itself produces and releases chemicals that promote inflammation. Thus, excess fat is associated not only with OA, but with various forms of arthritis involving inflammation, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and gout, all of which can cause joint damage. 

Maintaining a healthy weight may be one of the best things you can do for keeping your joints healthy.

3. Protect knees from injury. Injury to an arthritic knee can cause further damage to the joint. Injury to a healthy knee may lead to arthritis down the road.  

To protect your knees, avoid activities that involve repetitive pounding such as jogging or high-impact aerobics, sports that involve pivoting or contact such as basketball or football, or any activity where injury is likely. Listen to your body — if you experience pain in a joint or joints, rest for a while. 

To reduce your risk of injury while lifting or carrying something heavy, use your largest, strongest joints and muscles to take stress off smaller hand joints and to spread the load over large surface areas. Hold items close to your body, which is less stressful for your joints. For joint safety, slide objects whenever possible rather than lifting them. 

In some cases, wearing a knee brace during certain activities may be helpful in preventing injury, although the evidence to support the use of braces for that purpose is not conclusive. A physical therapist can help you determine if a brace — and, if so, which one — is right for you.

4. Treat injuries promptly. If you do injure a knee or other joint, reduce swelling and promote healing by practicing RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation):
  • Rest your knees and avoid activities that cause pain.
  • Place a cold pack or bag or ice wrapped in a towel on the painful knee for 20 minutes at a time several times a day. 
  • Wrap an elastic bandage securely around the injured knee to reduce swelling. 
  • Recline with your leg placed on a pillow to keep your knee elevated above your heart as often as you can. 

If your pain is severe, you can’t bend or bear weight on your knee or pain doesn’t improve after a few days, speak with your doctor. 

5. Pay attention to pain. If you experience new or worsened pain in a joint or joints, it’s important to speak with your doctor. Pain can be a sign of injury or increased disease activity, both of which may require treatment to prevent further damage to your joint(s). Day-to-day osteoarthritis knee pain can also be a threat to your joints’ health if it keeps you from being active. For that reason it’s important to find pain treatments that work for you. Some to try: medications, nutritional supplements, hot and cold therapy, splints and braces and relaxation techniques. 

6. Kick the habit. If you smoke, add joint health to yet another reason to quit. For almost two decades research has connected smoking with more severe pain and joint damage in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Now, a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, suggests trading in your cigarettes for e-cigarettes or vape pens won’t necessarily help. The study, which examined data from 924,882 participants in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System — the largest national telephone-based survey of randomly sampled adults in the United States — found current smokers of e-cigarettes were 81% more likely to have an inflammatory form of arthritis compared to those who had never smoked e-cigs. 

7. Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and beans and low in processed foods and saturated fats can not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular and other diseases of aging, but it may also promote healthy joints. Studies suggest that eating a Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of developing OA and reduce joint-damaging inflammation and disease progression in people who have OA.

8. Practice good posture. Over time, bad posture can place abnormal stresses on your joints, leading to excess cartilage wear and damage.  Consistently practicing good posture decreases those stresses by allowing your muscles to work more effectively to support the joints.  To practice good posture, stand with up straight with your shoulders back, head level and in line with your body, abdomen tucked in and feet shoulder-width apart. When sitting, keep your back against the back of the chair, your feet flat on the floor, a small space between the backs of your knees and the chair, and your knees at the same height or slightly lower than your hips. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to improve your posture. A physical or occupational therapist can also help you arrange your workspace to improve posture and relieve joint stress on the job. 

9. Take care in selecting footwear. The wrong shoes can not only hurt the joints in your feet, but they can also throw off your posture and affect joints all the way up your body. High heels, for example, put extra stress on your knees and may increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis. For your joints’ sake, choose shoes with a low or no heel. Look for flexible, supportive shoes with a square or rounded toe that allows your toes to move around. Look for shoes that are well cushioned and flexible at the ball of the foot, where you push off, but supportive enough that you cannot bend it in half from heel to toe. For foot or knee pain consider a shoe insert or orthotic. A physical therapist can recommend the best one for you. 

10. Be good to your bones. Your joints can’t be healthy if the bones that join to form them aren’t. Many of the habits you practice to help your joints — regular exercise, a healthy diet — are also essential for strong bones. For bone health, ensure that your diet is high in calcium and vitamin D (naturally available in tuna, salmon, swordfish, egg yolks as well as in fortified milk, juices and cereals). If you aren’t sure you’re getting enough, speak with your doctor about supplements. Also, minimize your consumption of carbonated soft drinks, coffee and alcohol, which can increase excretion of calcium.  

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