Taking custody of your joints

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Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder in which cartilage - the cushioning between the bone joints - wears away. Pain and stiffness are the result. Symptoms usually appear in middle age, so aging plays a role.

Inactivity is another major risk factor for osteoarthritis. Muscles atrophy quickly from disuse and become unable to provide the structure and support that joints need. In order to be nourished and healthy, the cartilage in the knee requires the movement of muscle over bone to get a sufficient blood supply.

Persons already suffering from arthritis need to know how to protect their joints so they can continue to exercise. Those with healthy joints need to do the right things to keep them that way.

- First, choose your activities wisely. Running and jogging have excellent cardiovascular benefits but usually are classified as high impact and risky for the joints. Often, it is a matter of form that separates runners who do well over the long term and those who should select a less impactful exercise.

Some runners have a shuffling gait that puts less stress on joints. The greatest risks come from downhill running, workouts on hard surfaces such as concrete and worn-out or poorly chosen shoes.

Walking is often touted as the ideal low-impact exercise. Be aware, however, that gait irregularities such as favoring either the heel or the toe can lead to joint or muscle problems.

Another seemingly low-impact activity that can have adverse effects is stair-stepping. The stair-stepper machine in the health club increases force on the knee joint up to four times body weight. To protect your joints, don't use the stair-stepper two days in a row, reduce the speed and pay attention to pain or swelling in your knees.

- Don't exceed your limits. What anyone is able to do in terms of exercise is determined primarily by conditioning. If you try to do too much too fast, your muscles tighten and put extra strain on surrounding joints. Nagging pain during exercise or after you stop is a sign that you are overdoing it. Treat injuries promptly with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications.

Some athletes, particularly long-distance runners, develop strong quadriceps muscles but ignore the hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh. This creates the potential for joint injury. Hamstrings can be strengthened through specific exercises and should be 60 to 70 percent as strong as your quadriceps.

- Watch your weight. Protect your lower joints by keeping your weight at a healthy level. One study found that losing as little as 11 pounds resulted in a 50 percent reduction in arthritis risk.

- Wear the right shoes. Foot problems can radiate up to the knees and hips. Be sure to buy shoes that give you the shock absorption, cushioning and motion control you need. Replace your shoes promptly when they've lost their cushioning or are showing wear on the soles.

Consider orthotic shoe inserts to correct high arch, low arch, inward or outward rotating gait or other imperfections. By supporting the arch and centering the heel, the orthotic balances the body's weight in a proper alignment, taking stress off joints and muscles all the way to the hip. Podiatrists and some physical therapists can provide custom orthotics.

Prolonged standing can be harder on the feet and the joints than walking or running. If you have aches and pains from standing on your feet all day at work, the answer may not be to sit down and relax on the couch but rather to get up and get moving.

Before starting or significantly modifying any exercise program, you should see a health care provider. If you suspect you may have osteoarthritis, discuss it with your doctor. Early diagnosis can lead to successful management of this condition.

Lisa A. Bankard coordinates the Wellness and Community Education department at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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