As we age, our joints can start to ache and feel stiff. Joint pain and stiffness is often caused by normal wear and tear from daily use and activities over the years. However, there are many things you can do to strengthen your joints as you get older to help maintain mobility and reduce pain.
Why do joints get stiffer with age?
There are several reasons why our joints tend to get stiffer as we age:
- Cartilage wears down – The cartilage acts as a cushion between the bones in a joint. As we get older, this cartilage can start to break down and become thinner, causing stiffness and pain.
- Less synovial fluid – This fluid helps to lubricate and nourish the cartilage. We produce less synovial fluid as we age, allowing bones to rub together more.
- Muscles get weaker – The muscles surrounding the joints can lose strength over time. Strong muscles help support and stabilize the joints.
- Less motion – Being less active as we age causes joints to move less, resulting in more stiffness.
- Bone spurs – These extra bits of bone can develop around joints, limiting motion and flexibility.
Best exercises to strengthen old joints
Here are some of the top exercises recommended by physical therapists and doctors to improve joint flexibility and strength:
|Major Joints Worked
|Hips, knees, ankles
|Low impact, improves flexibility and blood flow
|Shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees
|Full body workout with no impact on joints
|All major muscle groups
|Builds muscle to support joints, improves bone density
|Hips, knees, ankles
|Gentle movements improve balance, flexibility
|All major joints
|Increases flexibility, range of motion, and strength
|Hips, knees, ankles
|Low impact aerobic workout
Going for regular walks is one of the easiest ways to boost joint health. Walking gets the joints moving through their full range of motion without jarring impact. It strengthens the muscles around the joints and lubricates them with synovial fluid.
Aim for 30-60 minutes of walking at least 3-5 days per week. Going on uneven terrain or up hills increases the strengthening benefits. Make sure to wear supportive, cushioned shoes designed for walking.
Swimming allows you to exercise the joints without gravity pressing down. Being in the water makes the limbs feel lighter, reducing stress on the joints. The motion promotes flexibility as you move the joints through their full range of motion.
Try to swim at least 30 minutes 3-4 times per week. Perform different strokes to distribute the workload evenly across all of your major joints.
Lifting weights builds up the muscles surrounding the joints, providing more support and reducing pressure. Strong muscles improve stability and help prevent injury. Focus on gradual progressive training 2-3 times per week.
Some great strength exercises include:
- Bicep curls
- Tricep extensions
- Shoulder raises
- Leg presses
- Calf raises
Use lighter weights and higher repetition to avoid joint strain. Avoid lifting excessive weight that causes pain.
Tai chi utilizes slow, focused movements that take the joints through their range of motion. Practicing tai chi improves balance, muscle strength, and flexibility in the hips, knees, and ankles.
It is low impact and puts minimal strain on the joints while strengthening them. Take a tai chi class 1-2 times per week for joint benefits. If you can’t find a class, watch videos and practice the movements at home.
Yoga involves practicing various poses and postures that gently stretch the joints. Holding the poses strengthens the muscles while improving flexibility. Make sure to avoid bouncing or jerky movements. Focus on poses that feel good without pain.
Yoga helps increase blood flow to the joints and builds balance. Try to take a beginner yoga class once or twice a week. Listen to your body and don’t push too hard into painful positions.
Cycling is a lower impact exercise that strengthens the leg and knee joints. It improves endurance and cardiovascular fitness. The circular pedaling motion helps lubricate the knee joints. Start slowly and aim for 30 minute sessions 2-3 times per week.
Use a stationary or upright bike rather than a road bike to reduce strain on the shoulders, arms, and hands. Proper bike fit and adjustment is also important to prevent knee, hip, and back pain.
Lifestyle habits for healthy joints
Along with staying active through exercise, these healthy lifestyle habits can help keep your joints stay supple and pain-free:
- Maintain a healthy weight – Excess weight puts more pressure on weight bearing joints like knees and hips. Losing weight helps reduce joint wear.
- Joint supplements – Glucosamine and chondroitin provide building blocks for cartilage. Turmeric and omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation.
- Warm up properly – Take 5-10 minutes to warm up muscles and lubricate joints before exercise.
- Stay hydrated – Drinking plenty of water keeps joints lubricated and prevents stiffness.
- Listen to your pain – Avoid activities that cause joint pain. Rest swollen, painful joints.
- Use assistive devices – Canes, walkers, joint braces provide extra support and take pressure off joints.
- Mind your posture – Practice good posture to avoid unnecessary strain on the joints.
- Balance rest and movement – Alternate between exercise and rest days to avoid overexertion.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor promptly if you experience:
- Joint pain that gets progressively worse
- Inability to move a joint through its full range of motion
- Joint instability, buckling, or locking
- Significant muscle weakness around a joint
- Swelling, redness, heat, or tenderness in a joint
- Popping, clicking, crunching, or grinding noises in a joint
These symptoms may indicate an underlying medical condition requiring treatment, such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Torn cartilage
- Dislocated or sprained joint
Your doctor can provide a proper diagnosis and tailored treatment plan. This may include medication, physical therapy, orthotics, braces, or even surgery.
When to see a physical therapist
A physical therapist can provide personalized joint strengthening exercises and advice. See a physical therapist if you have:
- Chronic joint stiffness and pain
- Difficulty with daily activities due to joint issues
- Recently had joint surgery or injury
- Balance or mobility problems
- Been diagnosed with a condition like arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis
A PT will assess your joint mobility, muscle strength, posture, and balance. They can design a customized program with stretching, strengthening, and low impact endurance exercises. They may use techniques like ultrasound, ice/heat therapy, or joint mobilization.
When to consider joint replacement
For severe joint damage that does not improve with other treatments, joint replacement surgery may be an option. Knee and hip replacements are most common. Surgery may be considered if:
- Persistent joint pain is impacting quality of life
- Daily activities have become extremely limited
- Night pain prevents sleeping
- Non-surgical treatments have failed
- The joint has severe damage confirmed by x-ray
Joint implants can restore mobility and provide significant pain relief. Over 1 million knee and hip replacements are performed in the U.S. each year. The procedures have over a 90% success rate for reducing arthritis joint pain.
While joint stiffness and soreness often comes with age, there are many effective ways to maintain and improve joint health. Regular exercise that strengthens muscles around the joints and increases flexibility is key. Keeping a healthy weight, staying active, and proper joint care can help you stay mobile and independent for many years to come.
Some joint deterioration is inevitable with aging. But you can take proactive steps through lifestyle habits, physical therapy, medication, and if needed, surgery. With the right prevention and treatment, most people can manage age-related joint changes and remain active well into old age.