While working out, your muscles tend to be at the top of mind. But your muscles can only perform their movements because of the bones within them. Specifically, your joints.
For a biology refresher: The definition of a joint is any place in which two bones connect. “Where there is motion between two bones, that’s a joint,” says James Gladstone, MD, an orthopedist and chief of sports medicine at Mount Sinai. In order for the joints to healthily allow motion, they’re capped by cartilage at each end of the bone. “This allows the bones to either glide or bend or twist on each other smoothly,” he says. Together with your ligaments (which hold your joints together), tendons (which attach muscle to bone), and your muscles, you’re able to do all sorts of motions.
Every time you move a part of your body, at least one joint is involved—which is why they’re so crucial to fitness and movement in general. Without healthy joints, simple movements can become painful, which impacts your performance in workouts as well as your everyday life. “In a healthy body, your bones never actually touch each other, because the cartilage acts as a spacer,” says Vinh Pham, physical therapist and co-founder of Myodetox Clinics. Thus, “most pressure from movements should go into your muscles, not your joints,” he says. However, cartilage wears down due to age as well as impact over time. This is when you can experience bone-on-bone action, which, ouch.
Preventing damage to your cartilage from impact—which then puts more pressure and pain on the joints—is an important component of overall longevity. “Over time, your joints are going to wear out, but longevity is how we delay this as much as possible,” says Pham, who notes that having strong muscles that support the joints is one way to protect said joints.
Dr. Gladstone adds that strength and flexibility are also critical to supporting joint health and overall longevity. “It’s all part of the whole concept of conditioning, which is a combination of maintaining flexibility, strength, and coordination. If you can do that, then you have the best chance of avoiding injury and staying healthy,” he says. For specifics, though, keep scrolling for what the pros recommend incorporating into your fitness regimen for your best joint health.
How to improve joint health for better workouts and longevity
1. Get as many steps in as you can every day
Movement is key in order to keep your muscles and joints functioning. Dr. Gladstone points to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at people over a 15-year period and how their daily steps correlated to longevity. “They found that people who took 8,000 steps a day on average had a 50 percent chance of living longer than those who took much less,” he says. This doesn’t mean that you have to hit the pavement, though. Dr. Gladstone recommends all forms of movement, whether it’s walking, running, jumping—whatever you’d be able to do consistently. If you’re into running, try the speed interval workout above, courtesy of trainer Jes Woods.
2. Prioritize your flexibility
Since having good mobility is one main component of joint health, Dr. Gladstone says it’s important to prioritize stretching and exercises that increase your flexibility. “Yoga and Pilates are great, and programs that incorporate these tend to work all aspects of your body, which is really beneficial,” he says. Both fitness modalities work to both strengthen and lengthen your muscles while adding to your overall flexibility. Doing regular stretches can help, too. Try the flexibility-focused yoga workout above to get started on your mat.
3. Work through full-body exercises
Both Pham and Dr. Gladstone say full-body work is important for improving joint health. “For instance, running is a great exercise, but this doesn’t do much for the upper body,” says Dr. Gladstone, who points out that regularly focusing on certain body parts while ignoring others can lead to muscle imbalances and injury. Having full-body strength ensures that all of your muscles can help absorb impact from movement rather than having too much go into your joints. The 30-minute Pilates workout, above, is a low-impact way to work everything from head to toe.
4. Train with weights or resistance
“If you want to have healthy joints, you need to build muscle and workout with loads that will help with bone density,” says Pham, who notes that your bones get thicker when you progressively load your workouts. “Weight training is key.” You can work with either traditional weights or resistance bands to reap the benefits of this—just be sure to maintain proper form in whatever you do, and try to increase the weight or resistance that you’re using once you start to build strength. The HIIT dumbbell workout above hits all of your muscles in just seven minutes.
5. Incorporate a recovery regimen
You already know how important recovery is in your workout schedule, but it’s also a major player when it comes to preserving your joint health. “Getting stronger is one part of the equation, but you want to decrease inflammation in your body,” says Pham. Dr. Gladstone says stretching is one way to give your muscles relief; Pham adds that CBD can help with the case, too. “CBD can help post-workout to decrease overall stress in your system, and the less stress, the better you recover,” he says (he’s a fan of Asystem Radical Relief Gel Roll-On for muscle soreness). Grabbing something like a Theragun can help, too—check out how to use the device for your recovery routine above.
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