Protecting your joints

Published: September, 2020

Whether you're pain-free, recovering from an injury, or managing chronic arthritis, you can still protect your hips and knees and prevent additional problems by following these dos and don'ts:

Do choose low-impact exercise. People with arthritis or injuries should choose low-impact activities to stay in shape with less pain, but anyone who runs or plays high-impact sports can also benefit from alternating with lower-impact activities. Recommended aerobic activities, from lightest to heaviest impact, include

  • swimming
  • cycling on a stationary bike, or outdoors on a level path
  • using an elliptical machine with low resistance
  • walking on level ground
  • rowing.

Do seek help for joint pain. A culture of "powering through the pain" leads many people to ignore injured joints. Rest aching joints, and seek a doctor's advice if the pain doesn't improve.

Do use lighter weights at the gym. Strong muscles protect nearby joints. But instead of choosing the heaviest weight possible when doing lower-body exercises, choose one that lets you do a greater number of reps, to improve both stamina and strength with less stress to joints.

Do consider working with a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapists can recommend specific stretches and exercises for joint problems and will make sure you're performing them safely.

Don't follow personal trainers or exercise instructors who push too hard. Unfortunately, trainers are not always knowledgeable about anatomy and injury prevention. Never perform movements that cause you pain.

Don't do deadlifts, deep lunges, or deep squats if you have joint problems. These common gym exercises put enormous stresses on the knees, hips, and lower back. Use machines like the leg press instead (avoid locking your knees when extending your legs).

Don't be inactive. Short-term injuries require rest, but if you're dealing with ongoing joint pain, don't be tempted to stay on the couch. Inactivity can make knee and hip problems worse by decreasing flexibility and weakening muscles that support and protect the joints.

For more on strategies for pain-free knees and hips, plus a Special Bonus Section on knee and hip replacement, read Knees and Hips, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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