If you’ve ever known someone who has arthritis, then you know how painful it can be. When the joints become inflamed, they swell and become stiff, causing pain and general discomfort. They may also become red and warm to the touch. Typically, arthritis eventually leads to a loss in range of motion.
It’s a very common condition, with 23.7% of U.S. adults, or nearly 1 out of 4, having doctor-diagnosed arthritis of some type, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That percentage is expected to increase in the decades ahead.
With arthritis being so painful and so prevalent, it may not surprise you to learn that it’s the leading cause of disability among adults in the U.S.
So how can you prevent arthritis? The truth is you may not be able to — at least not entirely. Much depends on your genetic makeup and other factors, such as your family history and gender. Arthritis affects women more often than men (23.5% vs. 18.1%), and it becomes more common as people get older.
But, even if there aren’t any surefire ways to prevent arthritis, there are steps you can take to delay the onset of this disease or slow its progression if you already have it.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
The heavier you are, the more burden you place on your joints. If you’re overweight, shedding those extra pounds will ease the workload for your joints.
For example, the CDC notes that for every pound lost, there’s a 4-pound reduction in the load exerted on the knee. You can see where dropping even 10-12 pounds of excess weight could make a considerable difference in how hard the joints would have to work.
The best way to get rid of excess weight is a two-pronged approach: increased exercise and some dietary changes.
If you don’t have arthritis, then explore an assortment of physical activities to see which ones you like best. Engaging in exercise you enjoy makes it more likely that you’ll stick with it. Go for some variety to keep things interesting.
If you already have it and you’re wondering how to stop your arthritis from progressing, low-impact forms of exercise are often an excellent idea. These include walking, biking, swimming and other types of water activities, such as water aerobics. In addition to aiding in weight loss, low-impact exercise may ease arthritis pain and improve joint function.
As a guideline, the CDC advises aiming for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. That amounts to a little over 20 minutes a day, and you can even break that into smaller chunks of time.
As far as diet for arthritis prevention, the standard advice applies: Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and cut back on processed foods, which cause inflammation.
Specifically, Harvard Health recommends avoiding these foods that cause inflammation:
- Refined carbohydrates (e.g., white bread, white rice, pasta and crackers made with white flour, donuts and other pastries, potato chips and similar snacks)
- Fried foods
- Sugary drinks
- Red meat and processed meat (e.g., hot dogs, beef jerky, salami, sausage, ham, and cured bacon)
- Margarine (as well as shortening and lard)
Giving up cigarettes is among some of the ways to prevent arthritis. Here’s why: The Arthritis Foundation notes that smoking is harmful to bones, joints and connective tissues, such as cartilage, the Arthritis Foundation notes.
To put it plainly, if you smoke, quitting is a good step to take for the health of your joints. That’s true even if you already have arthritis — of any kind.
Research shows that smoking is associated with a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, in particular.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which a trigger of some sort (such as an infection or an environmental factor — like smoking, possibly) causes the immune system to produce substances that attack the joints. Like other types of arthritis, it’s an inflammatory disease. It’s a systemic disease, as well, which means it can affect the whole body.
Researchers have not established that smoking causes rheumatoid arthritis, but we do know that people who smoke have higher levels of cytokines. These are inflammatory proteins that have been found to play a role in the joint and organ damage associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis and want to know how to stop your arthritis from progressing, quitting your tobacco habit is a great start.
Increase Your Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The third step on our list of suggestions for arthritis prevention is to add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids that reduce inflammation.
Certain kinds of fish are high in omega-3s, including salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines. For plant-based sources of omega-3s, try flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and other leafy salad greens.
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may also help prevent or slow the progression of diabetes, heart disease and cognitive decline, so eat up!
Do What You Can to Avoid Injury
An old injury to a joint can increase the odds that you’ll eventually develop arthritis in that joint. You may also have weak cartilage because of genetic factors. There really isn’t much you can do about any of that.
What you can do is protect your joints by warming up before you engage in physical activity. Wear and tear on your joints from playing sports or even routine activities can lead to osteoarthritis. Warming up only takes a few minutes, and you could save yourself a lot of pain later on.
You can also protect your joints from getting injured by wearing protective gear, such as knee and elbow pads, during sports and other physical activities.
These four basic steps could go a long way toward preventing arthritis or delaying its onset. There are likely other health benefits associated with them as well. Here’s to happier, healthier joints!