No matter what type of training or sport you take on, it’s likely that you’ll have to think about your joints at some point. Even if you’re doing low-impact activities like yoga, cycling or swimming, repetitive movement coupled with less-than-ideal nutrition can cause significant problems later in joints like knees, wrists, and shoulders.
“Once you have an issue with your joints, it takes a while to rehab back to health, because you have to change your movement patterns and build up the muscles around the affected joint,” says Brad Leavelle, a Minneapolis-based physical therapist.
He notes that it’s much better to focus on prevention, if possible. Or, if you already have minor issues, to make recovery a priority so they don’t become major problems. Here are some strategies that can help:
STRENGTHEN MUSCLES AROUND THE JOINT
Anyone who’s had surgery on a joint knows the drill: Before you go under the knife, you’re usually tasked with doing pre-surgical physical therapy to build up the muscles that surround and support the joint.
But you don’t have to wait until the joint is at that point to make muscle development a priority, Leavelle says. For example, to reduce the chance of knee strain, focus on exercises that strengthen your quadriceps and hamstrings.
Those might be calf raises, step-ups, wall squats and hamstring curls. He suggests starting with bodyweight exercises before moving on to weights or machines. Strong quads, in particular, help stabilize your knee so it will be less affected by impact — like you’d find in running — or by twisting.
Sometimes, stretching is a more appropriate tactic, especially for joints like the wrists. Range-of-motion exercises done slowly and deliberately can lengthen tendons and muscles, creating a more supportive framework for joints.
USE YOUR PLATE TO REDUCE INFLAMMATION
Working your muscles to the point of fatigue helps to make them stronger, but it may also temporarily increase inflammation as your body rushes toward recovery. If your joints are weakened in any way, that amount of inflammation can be higher, because the body is trying to heal them.
Although some degree of inflammation is healthy, too much can become a problem.
Fortunately, there are numerous foods that can lower inflammation levels throughout your system, providing benefits not just for your joints, but also your thyroid, immune system and digestion. Choices like nuts, tart cherries, dark leafy greens, like kale, and fatty fish such as salmon. Also try turmeric and ginger, two spices that are particularly high in anti-inflammatory compounds.
BE MINDFUL — EVEN IN YOGA
Although yoga is often used as a way to regain mobility and flexibility after injuries, the practice can also lead to joint problems if a yoga student is trying to do too much, too quickly, according to Dr. Dennis Cardone.
“Yoga can bring knee and wrist injuries, in particular, based on certain poses,” he says. For example, some students push themselves forward while in a plank position, which can tweak the wrists. Another pose, called a hero, calls for the student to sit with legs bent to either side and then lower back onto the floor.
He adds that any sport can have questionable moves that put joints at risk. To minimize them, he suggests paying very close attention to how you’re moving to make sure you’re using your muscles, not your joints. Also, if there’s even a moment of pinching, strain, pain or numbness in joints, back off immediately.
“Feeling challenged during a workout is good,” he says. “But feeling pain, especially in your joints, could set you up for problems. If you keep ignoring that pain, you could be creating a chronic issue.”