Use anything on and off all day, every day — for decades — and over time, it’s bound to show wear and tear. Case in point: the protective cushion between your bones, otherwise known as cartilage.
That’s why the risk for developing osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, increases with age, says Angelie Mascarinas, M.D., a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, headquartered in New York City. About 50 percent of adults over age 65 have arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); osteoarthritis is the most common form.
You can’t do much to slow the march of time, but there are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make to show your joints a little love. Here are the six worst habits for your joints.
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Not that you need another reason to give up cigarettes, but here it is: Smoking does a number on your joints. The nicotine in cigarettes narrows blood vessels and, as a result, restricts the amount of oxygen and critical nutrients that reach the joint cartilage. “This can result in cartilage loss, since cartilage receives its nutrients from the surrounding joint fluid and adjacent bone,” Mascarinas says.
That’s not all: It turns out, smoking also ups your risk for osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, seniors who smoke are 30 to 40 percent more likely to break their hips than their nonsmoking counterparts. And it “may increase pain sensitivity,” Mascarinas says. “In other words, arthritis pain can be perceived as more severe in smokers, so the [pain-relieving] effects of arthritis medications may seem less effective to smokers.”
2. A physically inactive lifestyle
Sedentary habits are bad for your joints in a couple of ways. For starters, it makes it hard to maintain a healthy weight, and extra pounds are hard on your joints, especially those in the hips, hands and knees, according to a study in Arthritis & Rheumatology that followed more than 1.7 million people for more than four years. Knees are especially vulnerable. Participants who were obese, with a body mass index of 30 or higher, were about three to five times as likely to get knee osteoarthritis. One study found that losing 1 pound of body weight translated into 4 pounds of pressure being taken off the knees.
Frequent sitting also “leads to muscle tightness in the hips and legs, and weakness of core-stabilizing muscles,” Mascarinas says.
To counter all of the above, aim for 30 minutes of joint-friendly exercise five days a week. “Moderate, low-impact activities like walking, water aerobics and swimming are easy on the joints,” Mascarinas says. “If you have osteoarthritis, avoid deep squats and deep lunges, running, repetitive jumping, and activities with quick turns and sudden stops like basketball and tennis.”
And make a point of breaking up bouts of sitting every 30 minutes or so with a couple minutes’ worth of stretches. Doing so helps keep joints lubricated, says Akhil Chhatre, M.D., director of spine rehabilitation and assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “I advise my patients to maintain some activity throughout the day, but to expect increased pain with increased activity.”
3. Overdoing exercise
Weekend warriors, listen up: Cramming in a week’s worth of exercise on the weekends isn’t doing your joints any favors. “There’s a happy medium between exercising our muscles and not overdoing the stress on the joints,” says David Porter, M.D., an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon in Indianapolis. “Studies have shown that people with arthritis who keep their muscles in good shape manage arthritis much better.” Find the sweet spot with a mix of aerobic exercise and strength training. “Even 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds can continue to get good muscle responses to weight-training exercises,” Porter says. Research shows “that it’s easier to do daily activities — such as getting up out of a chair, going up and down steps, and possibly even decreasing the risk of falls — with more conditioned muscles.”
4. Carrying a heavy load
It’s hardly a surprise that heavy lifting — whether it’s hauling a filled-to-capacity tote bag on a daily basis or picking up your growing grandchild on those once-a-month visits — takes a toll on your body. And it exacts a specific toll on your joints. “Carrying objects that are heavy creates imbalance throughout the body,” Porter says. And these imbalances “create torque or stress on the joints which can further deteriorate the cartilage over time.”
The trick, of course, is defining “heavy” load. Porter says to consider it “any amount of weight that requires more than one hand to pick it up.” Play it safe and use the palms of both hands or use your arms instead of your hands when you lift or carry stuff, the Arthritis Foundation suggests. Hold items close to your body, which is less stressful for your joints.
5. Eating pro-inflammatory foods
We’re talking all the usual suspects: red meat, white sugar, French fries, soda, pastries. These pro-inflammatory foods can worsen joint pain, Mascarinas says. On the other hand, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids — flaxseed oil and cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel — are considered anti-inflammatory and can help alleviate inflamed joints. Leafy greens are also recommended, as are cholesterol-lowering foods like almonds, pistachios and walnuts, suggests a study published in Rheumatology, which found a link between high cholesterol and knee and hand osteoarthritis.
Mascarinas suggests incorporating foods like olive oil, berries and fish into your diet if you’re experiencing joint pain. Foods that are high in beta-carotene, fiber, magnesium and omega-3s have also been linked to reduced inflammation in studies, she says. What’s more, “limiting pro-inflammatory foods like red meat, sugar and dairy can also decrease joint pain.”
6. Texting, texting, texting
The occasional text does minimal, if any, harm to the joints in your hands. But constant typing on that mini keyboard (aka: your cellphone) “creates inflammation of the joints and tendon sheaths which can lead to pain and stiffness,” Porter says. The same holds true for iPads, laptops — basically anything with a keyboard. To avoid joint pain, take breaks. And consider relying on the speech-to-text function on your smartphone.
Kimberly Goad is a New York–based journalist who has covered health for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest.
Editor's note: This story, originally published Jan. 3, 2022, has been updated with new information.