Joints feeling sore or stiff? You might think that avoiding exercise is the best way to protect your joints — but that's not always true! Generally speaking, strengthening, stretching, and utilising your joints helps to maintain flexibility and can even improve your range of movement*.
As complex junctures of bones, muscles and ligaments, joints are common sites of pain and decreased mobility as we age. Regularly stretching and strengthening them at all stages of your life can help to prevent injuries, improve mobility, and might even reduce arthritic pain .
Here are the five best types of exercise to support your joints, for life:
* But of course we recommend speaking to your GP or Accredited Exercise Physiologist for personalised advice!
1. Strengthening Exercises
Hate the gym? No worries – you don't need weight machines for this. At-home exercises with free weights, resistance bands, or bodyweight can target specific muscle groups to support key joints.
Flexibility can give your joints a greater range of motion but if it isn't backed up with muscle strength, that same flexibility can strain the joints and become a weakness or injury. By strengthening nearby muscles, you can help to stabilise your joints – the stronger your muscles are, the less strain is put on your joints.
For example, performing simple “supermans” can help to strengthen joints in the lower back:
Example: Lie face-down on the ground with your arms stretched straight out ahead of you, and legs straight behind you. Engage your abdominals and lower back muscles as you raise your arms and legs off the ground. Hold for 10 seconds, and release.
Speak to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist to learn how to safely perform strengthening exercises that are right for you.
2. Range of Motion Exercises
Remember doing hip circles to warm-up in PE class? Time to bring them back as part of your daily routine.
Range of motion exercises like hip circles, shoulder rolls and lateral squats help to maintain joint mobility and flexibility by improving circulation and reducing stiffness. These exercises are easy to do and you don't need any extra weights or resistance... They do require a lot of repetition – between 25 – 75 reps of each movement, for 1 – 3 sets each day – but this becomes easier the more you do it!
Example: Raise your arms over your head. Roll your shoulders forwards and backwards, repeating for at lest 25 rotations in each direction.
3. Co-Ordination Exercises
Balance and co-ordination go out the window when a joint and its surrounding muscles are compromised. Likewise, better co-ordination leads to improvements in awareness of your body movements — a sense of where your joints and limbs are positioned — which helps to prevent injuries.
Co-ordination exercises can be as simple as balancing on one foot, or you could try out techniques from yoga, pilates or tai chi. Regularly practicing yoga has been shown to improve co-ordination and joint flexibility by incorporate stretching, strengthening, breathing techniques and range of motion exercises.
Example: Practice co-ordination exercises like walking backwards, or balancing on one foot.
Swimming is a low-impact exercise that's easy on the joints, and the buoyancy of water adds additional support . You might find that you have a greater range of motion in the water than on land, allowing you to stretch different areas of your body and strengthen underused muscles. A study in 2015 found that women who swam for one hour, three times a week significantly improved the flexibility and range of motion of their joints within just three months .
Example: Hit the pool for some laps or fitness classes for a joint-stabilising aerobic workout.
5. Cycling Exercises
Cycling is a smoother alternative to the jolting action of jogging, but with similar aerobic benefits and it keeps the knees moving in their full range of motion while strengthening the muscles that support them. A study in 2016 found that cycling for 45 minutes a day, three days a week significantly reduced joint pain in people with mild osteoarthritis. Another study found that low-intensity cycling was just as effective as high-intensive cycling for improving joint function and reducing pain. Make sure that the handlebars are at an appropriate level so you don't put extra strain on your shoulder joints. Or try a recumbent bike – they provide back support and put almost no pressure on the upper body.
Tip: If outdoor bicycling is a problem because of uneven ground or steep hills, bring the cycling indoors and use a stationary bike.
Tips to Protect Your Joints During Exercise:
- Apply heat before you start. Applying a warming sports cream like Deep Heat or taking a warm shower can relax joints and muscles, and may relieve pain before you begin exercising.
- Move gently. Begin with warm up exercises for the first 5 – 10 minutes of your workout before moving onto aerobic or strength exercises.
- Keep it low impact. While there are benefits to high impact exercises such as improved bone density, low-impact exercise like stationary bikes, elliptical trainers and training in water can take the stress off sore joints.
- Go slowly. Perform slow, easy movements and stop if you experience sharp pain, swelling, or redness in your joints. You can gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise over time as your body adapts.
- Try supplementation. There are many supplements that can help keep your muscles and joints healthy, including magnesium, curcumin and omega-3. Look for high quality vitamins, with easily absorbed or activated forms of ingredients.
- Speak to your health care professional. This could be your GP, specialist, pharmacist or Accredited Exercise Physiologist for personalised advice.