8 Ways Exercise Helps Your Joints

Staying physically active has numerous benefits for both your overall health and your joints affected by arthritis. 

Exercise is recognized for its ability to improve cardiovascular health and balance, strengthen muscles and promote range of motion and flexibility. But regular physical activity also plays a crucial role in the health of your joints. Here’s how:

1. Lubricating Your Joints

The joint is surrounded by soft tissue called the synovial membrane, which produces a fluid that acts like oil in an engine, allowing your bones to move past one another more smoothly. Physical activity stimulates the production of synovial fluid, says Susan Sterling, former director of education at the Cooper Institute, a preventive medicine research and education nonprofit in Dallas. Increasing fluid through movement of the joints helps prevent stiffness and keeps joints agile.

2. Promoting Circulation of Nutrients to Joints

The weight that bears down on your joints when you exercise forces water molecules out of the cartilage like a sponge, says John Hardin, MD, a professor emeritus of medicine and orthopaedic surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. When the weight is lifted, the water molecules return, bringing oxygen and nutrients the joints need.

3. Strengthening the Muscles Around Joints

“Exercise strengthens the muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding the joints,” says Sterling. “When these tissues are strong, they act like a brace to protect the joint,” and lessen pressure on weakened joints. For example, the quadriceps muscles in your thighs support your knee joints, and strong muscles in the lower back can protect your spine and hip joints. By strengthening these muscles, you reduce the load on your joints and decrease the risk of injury and pain.

4. Reducing Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a common contributor to joint pain and damage. Exercise can help combat inflammation by promoting the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines in the body. In one study, 20 minutes of moderate exercise on a treadmill was enough to produce a measurable anti-inflammatory effect.  Longer-term, exercise is part of an effective strategy to reduce body fat, which releases inflammatory substances.

5. Increasing Blood Flow to Joints

Exercise gets your heart pumping, which increase blood circulation throughout your body — including your joints. Circulation ensures that the synovial membrane is exposed to a steady supply of nourishing oxygen and nutrients, which are vital for repair and maintenance. Additionally, exercise triggers a biological process called autophagy, where damaged cells in the joint are broken down and removed. “It’s basically like taking out the trash,” explains Dr. Hardin.

6. Maintaining Joint Flexibility

Regular exercise, especially activities like yoga, tai chi and stretching, can improve joint flexibility. Doing these activities regularly can increase the range of motion in your joints, relieving pain and stiffness.

7. Promoting Weight Loss

Excess body weight is stressful to the weight-bearing joints such as the hips, knees and ankles. Regular exercise can play a role in losing excess weight by burning calories and building lean muscle mass. One study found that losing one pound of weight resulted in four pounds of pressure being removed from knees.  Other research has associated weight loss with pain relief and reduction in inflammation.

8. Improving Balance and Coordination

Exercises that focus on balance and coordination such as strength-training and tai chi, can protect joints by reducing the risk of falls that could injury them. Improved balance and coordination also enhance your body’s ability to protect and stabilize your joints during daily activities.

Check out the Arthritis Foundation’s Your Exercise Solution, a library of fitness videos that include exercises and workouts that are safe and effective at relieving arthritis symptoms.

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