Joint health might be one of the least talked about topics of health in the fitness industry.
It is usually left to the realm of the physical therapists so unless you suffer from chronic joint pain or have an injury, most people brush it off because their joints are feeling “okay”. There isn’t a large emphasis on joint range of motion, joint stability or preventing further wear and tear in the training world. As long as you are exercising and seeing results in your body composition, who cares right?
After all we have athletic therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists in the event that we do get injured or are living with pain.
But, what if we could prevent or mitigate injuries or joint pain in the first place?
Instead of being reactionary towards joint pain or injuries we can be proactive and train in a way that will keep our joints healthy, mobile and happy. At the very least it would improve recovery time in the event that an injury does occur, because a healthy strong joint will bounce back quicker than a deteriorated immobile one.
Now of course we can’t predict when we will get injured or even when we will feel joint pain. However, being proactive in your training will present a number of benefits.
First let’s go over what a joint is and what it is made of.
A joint in the human body, also known as an articulation, is the point at which two bones meet. There are many kinds of tissues in between and surrounding these two bones creating a solid structure. Tissues such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage all work together to provide stability and mobility to these structures.
Ligament - the fibrous connective tissue that connects bones to other bones.
Tendon - the fibrous connective tissue which attaches muscle to bone.
Cartilage - firm but flexible connective tissue found in many areas of the body including joints.
Within some of these articulations there are also fluids, known as synovial fluids, and bursa sacs that increase the ease of a joint’s movement. This fluid also provides blood flow to the joint to bring in new nutrients to keep the joint healthy. The greater the activity of the joint the greater the supply of fluid/blood flow.
Inversely the less movement the joint performs the less nutrients are fed to it, eventually leading to joint decay. Over a long period of time this leads to decreased range of motion, and potential joint aches and pain. As the old saying goes: “If you don’t use it, you lose it”.
Next, we will go over what happens when you get injured or have joint pain.
Injuries occur when the tissues in your body, ie. ligaments or tendons are exposed to a higher level of force than they are capable of absorbing. Our tissues’ only language is force. So when force is greater than capacity it results in injury. Injuries will never be completely preventable however with training we can prevent certain types of injuries, mitigate damage and even recover faster.
Joint pain on the other hand can be caused by a number of issues some of which we still have trouble explaining. Pain is felt by small receptors in our tissue to give our brain feedback that something is wrong with the tissue such as; previous or current injury, deterioration, wear and tear or disease/immune disorders.
Disease/immune disorders may not improve with training or joint focused exercises unfortunately and many require outside treatment. For example, there are over 100 different types of arthritis that can affect a person's joint health.
Fortunately the other causes of joint pain can be in some cases prevented/alleviated with training.
There are a number of different types of training you can participate in to improve your joint health and alleviate joint pain. Exercise such as functional training, yoga/flexibility training and low impact cardio machines would be the best options for someone looking to focus on joint health.
Functional training is characterized as exercises that help you perform activities in everyday life more easily. Focusing on compound movements and large muscle groups to improve strength, balance and stability. This style of training will emphasize more body weight or free weight exercises.
The key to maintaining or improving joint health with this style of training is to ensure you are working within your joint’s range of motion, pain free. Every body’s joints are made differently so just because one person can squat with their butt below their knees does not mean it is safe for another person.
The main benefit to this type of training is the improved capacity of the tissues to absorb more force leading to a decreased likelihood of tissue damage or injury.
Yoga/flexibility training will improve the range of motion each joint possesses. If your joint has more range to move freely and express itself this joint will have an increased likelihood of having richer blood flow and nutrient supply. Earlier I touched upon the importance of this supply to the joint. This flexibility can also give us something known as degrees of freedom which is very important in the prevention/mitigation of tissue injuries. A joint that has more degrees in which it can move freely will be able to “bend but not break” when it comes to forces being placed upon it.
Lastly, I will review low impact cardio machines and joint health. These are machines such as an elliptical, a stationary bike or a rowing machine. All of these are examples of cardiovascular improving machines that have little to no impact on your major joints. You can achieve great cardiovascular gains without the joint aches or pains from some other forms of long distance cardio while still getting joint movement and increased circulation.
Enhancing one's joint health from an exercise perspective will lead to a greater quality of life for the body and increase the likelihood that one will remain active throughout their entire life.