Working out at the gym offers many benefits. It’s fun, helps to keep you fit and healthy, boosts your immune system, slows the aging process and helps reduce the risk of premature death.
Done correctly, working out helps to build muscle strength, increase energy and endurance and improves bone strength and joint function. Done incorrectly, working out can cause injury, and wear out or damage your joints.
Leading orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, Nigel Hope, shares 10 great tips on how to look after your joints while training.
When training, it’s important to wear shoes that provide cushioning, stability and comfort. Wearing incorrect or old footwear could lead to unnecessary joint strain and injury, such as ankle and knee strains and fractures. Your shoes can also affect your back and spine. If they don’t provide proper support, you can injure your lower back.
The correct training shoe provides stability and shock absorption. A stable running platform will reduce the possibility of ankle sprains and associated joint injuries.
Shock absorption is critical to prevent conditions such as shin splints (inflammation of the leg bone after repetitive overload).
As the shoe wears out, so does its ability to absorb shock. Shoes older than three months may have reduced shock absorption capacity, while shoes older than six months certainly do. Replacing your shoes regularly helps to prevent joint injury.
Stretch before and after exercise
Stretching serves many purposes: it helps to lengthen your muscles, increasing flexibility and range of motion — the latter of which has been proven to prevent degenerative joint disorders such as arthritis. Stretching improves posture by strengthening the muscles in your back and chest to relieve unnecessary extra pressure on the joints, and lubricates the joints, which keeps them healthy.
For people with arthritis, even simple stretches, like a standing hamstring or a quadriceps stretch, can help ease pain.
Finally, dynamic stretching before and after exercise helps to avoid injury. Before stretching, ensure your muscles are warm, and don’t stretch beyond your limit as this can lead to hyperextension injury.
If you’ve experienced a joint injury, be sure to brace or strap the injury to provide additional support to the area.
Strapping helps joint injuries to heal as it may prevent movement in the “zone of injury.” For instance, a lunge injury to the front of the knee requires at least eight weeks of restricted range exercises and a brace to prevent bending the knee more than 30 degrees.
When you sprain your ankle the first thing lost is your ability to sense where your foot is located (known as proprioception). The strapping is designed to support the ankle, which helps reduce stress, bring back feeling and aid healing of the sprain.
Balance low — and high-impact training exercises
High-impact, weight-bearing exercises such as running, dancing, skipping and climbing stairs help to build and strengthen the bones. If you’re always working out and focusing on high-impact exercises, they will take a toll on your joints over time.
Combining high-impact and low-impact exercises, such as cycling, water running or even walking, will help maintain bone strength, while giving your weight-bearing joints a rest. This is particularly important for people over 40 and those with past injuries who are at increased risk of arthritis.
The most commonly performed orthopedic surgery is removal of part of the knee cartilage (meniscus). Removing the meniscus can expose the bones, which can lead to the exposed bones rubbing together, causing osteoarthritis. If you have had this type of surgery, it’s important to stop performing repetitive impact loading exercises, such as road running.
Load bearing exercises are good for maintaining bone strength and preventing bone thinning (osteoporosis). Gentle exercises with weights improve bone density and can prevent hip fractures, which are a significant problem among older women.
Healthy weight = healthy joints
Being overweight or obese adds extra pressure to your joints, particularly the load-bearing joints such as the knees or hips. Over time, weight and age factors play a significant role in the development of osteoarthritis and joint injury.
If you do carry extra weight, shedding even one pound will reduce the pressure on your weight-bearing joints, helping to keep them healthy.
High-intensity, low-impact interval training is the best way to shed excess weight without damaging your joints.
Speak to your gym staff or personal trainer about the Tabata workout, or similar interval training exercises to help maintain a healthy weight.
Avoid overuse that is causing pain
We’re all familiar with the adage, “push through the pain.” But when it comes to your joints, pushing through the pain is a major no-no.
As soon as you start to experience pain with the movement of a joint such as the knee, immediately stop the movement.
If you overdo it, you’ll hinder your improvement and risk fracture, dislocation or other serious joint injuries, which could upset your training routine and see you “benched” and unable to train for a long time.
If you stop and “listen” to your injury, it will tell you exactly how to heal. If it hurts, then stop. If it doesn’t hurt, then you can do a little more.
There is a term used in yoga known as “the edge” — a point at which you experience a little discomfort, but no injury. This is where you want to be. If you push any further, injury is guaranteed.
Practice yoga or breathing techniques to reduce stress
If the body is stressed, it releases a hormone called “cortisol” which can drive down the body’s collagen production and lead to unhealthy joints.
Yoga is a great low-impact exercise that offers a whole-body workout, which helps to improve overall fitness, flexibility and range of motion.
By combining stretching and strengthening, yoga is a low impact sport that protects the joints. It also protects the heart by training it to pump more blood per heartbeat, rather than training it to just pump faster, as per typical “aerobic” exercise.
Build muscle strength around your joints
Improving muscle strength and tone will help protect the joints from injury. Your knee joints, for example, are supported by muscles, which protect them from damage.
As muscles weaken, which occurs when we stop exercising and also to a lesser extent as we age, impact forces increase, thereby increasing our risk of injury.
Weakening muscles also diminish balance, leading to poor posture and a heightened likelihood of joint injury through increased pressure on the joints due to imbalanced weight bearing.
Strengthening muscles throughout the body, particularly those around the joints, can help relieve symptoms of arthritis and improve overall joint health.
While training, move your joints through their full range of motion
Your joints have a natural movement from a straight to a bent position — the “range of motion.” Using the full range of motion is important to prevent stiffness — an unfortunate part of the aging process. Full range exercises also gently stimulate the joint cells (chondrocytes) to produce a top quality joint surface (articular cartilage) which helps prevent arthritis.
Build your core
A strong core promotes better balance and lowers your risk of joint damage.
A weak core can cause all sorts of joint-related problems. Abdominal weakness can cause the pelvis or hips to tilt forward, which leads to poor posture and curvature of the spine, as well as pushing the knee joints inwards. This is one of the major factors in joint compression that’s responsible for most joint injuries.
Working out core muscles, including the abdominal muscles, will improve your posture, pelvic and spinal alignment.