Let’s start with the good news. In most cases losing weight has been shown to benefit your joints. The reason is quite simple; the less you weigh, the less pressure that ankles, knees and hips are under. This, in turn, can not only relieve any existing discomfort but can even help to protect your joints from future problems.
The impact of losing weight can be surprisingly large when it comes to your joints. One group of scientists found, for example, that each pound of weight lost can result in a 4-fold reduction on the pressure experienced by your knees. Another study looking at osteoarthritis in the knee found that reducing your body weight by just 10% resulted in a 28% improvement in symptoms.
Overall, therefore, losing weight tends to be good for your joints over the long term. Shorter term, however, dieting has the potential to cause joint problems; a case of short term pain in exchange for that long term gain. But why?
The average weight loss program tends to rely on two different processes. Firstly, fewer calories are consumed, to encourage the body to burn fat instead. While this is a critical step, many individuals end up on very limited diets, which may not provide the body (including the joints) with all the nutrients they require.
At the same time, many of us opt to speed up our weight loss by partaking in vigorous exercise. This, too, can impact the joints, particularly in cases where your body is less familiar with exercise or where high intensity programs are utilized.
So what can we do to minimize any damage to our joints while on a weight reduction program?
In recent decades fat has become the enemy of weight loss. There is some reasoning behind this; each gram of fat contains four times the calories than a similar volume of protein or carbohydrate. As a result of this, weight loss has become synonymous with “low fat diets” for many people. Sadly, this may not be the whole story…
Growing evidence suggests that while some forms of fat are bad for the body, others are positively beneficial. The key difference here is between the two groups – “polyunsaturated fats” and “saturated fats”.
In one study of people suffering from joint pain, for example, participants were provided with diets containing varying amounts of these fats; they found that those getting more polyunsaturated fatty acids experienced noticeable improvements in joint stiffness and tenderness. The evidence therefore seems to suggest that a balanced diet which includes unsaturated fats may be beneficial for maintaining your joints, as well as helping to control cholesterol levels.
Sources of “good fats” are foods like avocado, nuts, plant-based cooking oils and oily fish like salmon or mackerel. As a result, try to factor some of these into your diet plan to ensure you’re providing your body with all the nutrients it needs.
A new exercise regime can speed up your rate of fat loss but has the greatest potential to impact your joints. To give you an example, in one study of exercise-related joint injury, over 500 recreational cyclists were surveyed to see how many of them had experienced injury. The startling results suggested that 85% of participants had suffered some kind of joint pain and 36% requiring medical assistance.
In another similar survey, the experts found that roughly 50% of cyclists suffer from knee joint pain at some point in their careers. Let’s not forget that cycling is generally considered a “low impact” form of exercise, and hat higher intensity sports can have an even greater risk.
So, what can be done to protect your joints while exercising?
Learn Proper Form
Repeated scientific studies have shown that how we carry out an exercise is just as important as the type of exercise. Resistance training can be highly beneficial for weight loss as well as broader health, but when done with proper form doesn’t necessarily have to be any more dangerous than running or cycling.
Whatever exercises you choose to partake in, the key is learning how to do it properly. Investing in a personal trainer initially can be money well spent, as you learn how to complete your exercise with proper form.
Choose Suitable Equipment
Starting out with the right equipment can also help to reduce joint injury. Going back to cycling for a moment, using a bicycle of the right frame dimensions, and ensuring the handlebars and saddle are correctly positioned have been shown to reduce joint pain. In runners, footwear which properly supports the feet has also been linked to reduced injury.
If your chosen exercise regime will involve any kind of equipment, therefore, don’t scrimp on the essentials; your joints will thank you later.
Slowly Build Up Resistance
Whilst it has been shown that regular exercise can help to strengthen ligaments, support joint health and improve bone density, these processes take time to accomplish. Going from couch potato to ironman competitor in a matter of days is therefore likely to end in tears.
If you’re new to exercise, or are taking up a new and unfamiliar type of exercise, it is wise to gently ease into your new regime. Over time you can slowly build up the duration and frequency of exercise sessions as your body gets attuned to your new lifestyle.
Listen to Your Body
There seems to be a trend in ignoring your body and “pushing through the pain”. While this may work for experienced athletes, for many of us this can be a very bad idea. After all, pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. A better alternative is to listen to your body, and respond appropriately. If you experience a little joint pain or muscle discomfort the day after exercising, be willing to take a break. Let your body recover fully and you’ll be better-placed to continue in the future.
Lastly, there are a number of dietary supplements which are believed to assist with joint health and comfort. For anyone on a calorie-restricted diet and/or undergoing a new exercise regime these can offer a range of practical benefits. Fish oils, glucosamine and chondroitin are three of the most popular supplements for joint health, and may help to reduce inflammation while reducing discomfort.
Seek Professional Advice
Lastly, it is wise to consult your local health practitioner before commencing any weight loss program, especially if you suffer from a high Body Mass Index (BMI) or from existing health conditions. Your doctor will be able to provide professional and personalised guidance on suitable diet, exercise and supplementation, as well as tracking your progress. In doing so, you can feel certain that you’re deriving maximum benefit from your new lifestyle while minimizing any unnecessary risks to your health.
In most cases, ridding your body of excess fat offers a huge range of proven benefits. Not only can shedding weight help to relieve pressure on joints but can also impact a range of other health risks. In other words, if you’re overweight then getting in shape is almost certainly going to benefit you. That said, there are some potential risks, such as to your joints. By properly understanding these risks and mitigating for them, in conjunction with your doctor, you should be able to lose weight in a safe and healthy manner.
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