When it comes to aging and the body’s joints, use it or lose it
August 30, 2018
A sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on the body's muscles and joints
By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Vail Summit Orthopaedics
The body's joints just don't work like they used to as people age, but it doesn't always have to be this way.
As muscles and soft tissue around joints become less mobile with age, they also lose plasticity and become more stiff and painful. Cartilage around joints also becomes more weakened, which can lead to the perfect storm of events: More aches, pains and joint stiffness — even before arthritis sets in.
"Every cell in our body has the ability to heal and regenerate, but as times goes on, they become less capable," said Dr. Nathan Cafferky, a reconstruction and total joint surgeon at Vail Summit Orthopaedics. "When we become more sedentary as we age, it's easy for those joints to get stiff and that's when the pain sets in."
One of the best ways to prevent — or at least delay — the onset of these symptoms is to keep the body moving. Sedentary lifestyles work against the body.
While genetics have something to do with it, people have the ability to keep their bodies healthy and active well into old age. It all comes down to lifestyle habits.
"We see these people in the mountains who are really active into their 80s and even 90s — these are people who have incorporated exercise into their routines throughout their lives," Dr. Cafferky said.
Regardless of your current age, here are some of the things to keep in mind as you think about the longevity of your body's muscles and joints.
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Sedentary lifestyles can wreak havoc on the body. People who don't exercise tend to weigh more, but they also run the risk of losing their ability to be mobile.
"If you don't move your joints, you're going to lose your joints," Dr. Cafferky said. "We see it in the elderly population — the ones who are skiing and biking — they keep moving, they don't sit still."
The more you load your bones with exercise and activity, the stronger you will be, he added. To protect your bones and joints, try focusing on lower impacts exercises, too, such as biking, swimming and elliptical machines.
Other lifestyle habits
If you're a heavy drinker or smoker, those habits are eventually going to catch up with you, Dr. Cafferky said. People who stick to healthy diet and exercise habits, while avoiding substances like nicotine, drugs and alcohol, are going to remain a step ahead when it comes to longevity.
Calcium and vitamin D are major players in bone health, Dr. Cafferky said. People should make sure to get an appropriate amount of healthy proteins and nutrients in their diets.
"Food that's high in fat, high in sugar, can cause issues where the body is unable to heal itself," he said. "We see this in the heart, but the same thing can happen in other areas of the body. Our muscles, ligaments and joints all have similar reactions to unhealthy dietary habits."
People who are more sedentary are typically also heavier, and this becomes a painful cycle that's hard for many people to escape.
"For every pound on our body we carry, three times that weight is felt across the hip with just walking, and four times that weight is felt across the knee with just walking," Dr. Cafferky said. "For a 200-pound person, this means the hip feels 600 pounds of force and the knee feels 800 pounds of force."
Heavier people experience pain in their joints, which can make getting into shape more rough. Dr. Cafferky said that overweight people shouldn't feel discouraged, though. He advises to start out with small exercise and weight-loss goals.
"You don't have to lose a tremendous amount of weight for your bones to start feeling better," he said.
Surgical and non-surgical options
For those experiencing joint pain, Dr. Cafferky said there are several options he likes to try with patients before going the surgical route. If you're finding that impact exercises such as running are too hard on your joints, the first move would be to switch to low impact activities like biking and swimming.
If the activity adjustments aren't helping, physical therapy might be able to help. Dr. Cafferky said he would then look into operative solutions for a patient after these methods have been tried.
"As we age, the body undergoes this degenerative process within our joints. If living daily life is too painful or too burdensome — you're finding that even just walking around the house is so painful or annoying — the pain is winning, meaning it's impairing your abilities. This is typically when surgery becomes the answer."
Total knee and hip replacements have come a long way since doctors started performing these surgeries in the 1950s and '60s. About 80 percent of people return to a high quality of life pretty quickly — in about three months — after one of these total replacement surgeries. The remaining 20 percent might take up to a year to get all their balance, strength and coordination back.