Arthritis is a cruel straitjacket. If you’re ever seen people hobbling on bad hips or bum knees or struggling to simply butter toast with stiff, achy fingers, you know how this disease can interfere with life. But osteoarthritis–in in which the shock-absorbing cartilage between joint bones wears away–isn’t inevitable. For osteoarthritis, cartilage breakdown, injuries, extra weight, genetics, and muscle weakness can all contribute. Over time, cartilage may ear through in spots so that bones rub against each other, creating intense pain. Rheumatoid arthritis happens when your immune system attacks the lining of your joints, leading to intense pain, swelling, and joint deformities.
Pain, stiffness, tenderness, and swelling in joints. Osteoarthritis most often affects the knees, hips, hands, and spine. Rheumatoid arthritis usually begins in small joints in the hands and feet, then spread to larger joints. In addition to pain and swelling, rheumatoid arthritis can cause fever, tiredness, and weight loss. If you have a type of knee arthritis in which the wear and tear is harming the middle of your joint – called medial-knee arthritis – special insoles could help. Lateral-wedge insoles are thinnest at your instep and yours widest at the outer edge of your foot, realigning your feet and your lower legs in a way that can reduce some of the twisting that wears down knee joints. Your doctor can tell you which type you have. Everything from genetics to joint injuries to age-related changes in cartilage-protecting enzymes plays a role. But there’s plenty of evidence that you can cut your risk significantly with the simple, proven strategies here.
Are you carrying a spare tire, saddlebags, or “junk in the trunk”? Here’s one more reason to shed a few pounds: you’ll put less pressure on your joints thereby lower risk your arthritis. Australian researchers say that osteoarthritis risk goes up 36 percent for every 11 pounds over your healthy weight range. Lose just 1 pound, on the other hand, and you’ll put 4 pounds less stress on your knees. Losing 11 pounds if you’re obese can cut your odds of developing arthritis over the next 10 years by whooping 50 percent.
Losing weight benefits not only your knees but your hips, too. When Harvard Medical School researchers checked the weight and health histories of 568 women with osteoarthritis, they found that women with higher body weight were twice as likely to need hip replacement surgery.
Exercise For At Least An Hour A Week
Arthritis has been a bit of a conundrum to doctors and scientists. Until recently, they thought that a lifetime of exercising made people more vulnerable to the disease, since studies showed a higher risk of joint injuries, not exercise itself, account from the difference. In fact, there’s growing evidence that exercise can prevent problems by building up muscles that protect joints.
In one Australian study of middle-aged and older women, those who got 2.5 hours of exercise per week cut their odds of developing arthritic joints by about 40 percent. Exercising an hour a week lowered risk by about 30 percent. Stretching exercises help, too.
Add Strength Training
Strengthening your muscles by using any form of so-called resistance training (using light hand weights, elastic bands, or machines at the gym or doing home exercises that use your own body weight as resistance–think knee bends) nay shield joints from damage. In one study, women with stronger thigh muscles had 55 percent lower risk of developing knee arthritis and an amazing 64 percent lower risk for arthritis of the hips than women with weaker thigh muscles.
Getting stronger helps if you already have arthritis, too. When Tufts University researchers tested a gentle, at-home strength-training program for older men and women with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis, the results surprised and pleased study volunteers. After 16 weeks, exercisers had 36 percent less pain and 38 percent less disability.
Experts say gentle strength training can also dampen the pain and disability rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which occurs when the immune system attacks the tissues that protect bones. In a study from Finland, people with mild RA who followed a home strength-training program for two years saw pain decline by 67 percent and disability drop by 50 percent.
Women who smoked cigarettes raised their risk of developing RA by 30 percent in one Harvard study of 121,700 nurses. Smoking doubled the risk of the disease in another study of 30,000 women. Tobacco may provoke immune system changes that lead to an attack joints, Swedish researchers say. The good news women who had quit smoking had no extra risk after 10 years.
Get More Vitamin D
If you’re running low on the “sunshine vitamin,” your joints may be at risk. Vitamin D, produced by your skin upon exposure to the sun, may help keep the immune system healthy and protect joints from wear-and-tear damage by strengthening nearby bone, too. When researchers tracked men and women whose knees showed signs of osteoarthritis, those who took in above-average amounts of D from food and supplements were in a better shape eight years later than those who didn’t. Vitamin D may protect against RA as well. When researchers at the University of Iowa followed 29,368 women ages 55 to 69 for 11 years, they found that women who got less than 200 IU of from food or supplement were 33 percent more likely to develop the disease.
At press time, the US Institute of Medicine recommendation was 400 IU of D per day for people ages 50 to 70 and 600 IU per day after age 70, although many experts were lobbying to have the guild lines revised upward, and some recommended 1,000 IU per day. Getting up to 2,000 IU per day is considered safe.
You’ll probably need a supplement to get you there. Unless you’re eating fatty fish like salmon of mackerel every day (3.5 ounces of either contains about 350 IU of D), it’s awfully tough to get enough from food. (A glass of fat-free milk, another good source, has just 98 IU.) And while your body makes D from sunlight, if you can’t see your shadow, the rays probably aren’t strong enough. What’s more, after age 50, your body simply makes less D from sunlight.
Eat Colorful Foods
If it’s red, orange, blue, or green, chances are it’s loaded with antioxidants, compounds that neutralize rogue molecules called free radicals that are thought to interfere with cartilage repair and rebuilding. Sweet, juicy mangoes, peaches, oranges, and watermelons are packed with betacryptoxanthin, a tongue-twisting antioxidant and one of a pair of joint-pampering compounds that lower the risk of arthritis by an impressive 20 to 40 percent a University of Manchester, United Kingdom study of 25,000 people. The other antioxidant, zeaxanthin, is found in spinach, sweet corn, peas and orange peppers. People with the highest blood levels of both of these antioxidants cut their arthritis risk even further, by 50 percent.
Good old vitamin C is joint friendly, too. Eating plenty of strawberries, oranges, red bell peppers, and broccoli – all loaded with C – could help slow the development of knee pain if you already have osteoarthritis, say Boston University researchers. In one study, people who got the most C were three times less likely to have arthritis knee pain than people who got the least.