For many of us, the 50s are the decade in which we finally have the confidence, the time and the resources to take up new interests and perhaps even new sports. But at the same time, it’s often in our 50s that we get the first symptoms of joint problems, so it’s important that we do everything we can to protect our joints, so that they allow us to live the kind of active and fulfilling life we want.
Let’s look at some of the things you can do - and avoid - to help your joints take you smoothly through your 50s.
Exercise is clearly beneficial, and current advice is that even those with serious musculoskeletal conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are now advised to carry on taking exercise because the benefits outweigh the risks. But moderation has to be the keyword, even if you do not have serious joint problems. Fifty five is not twenty five.
There is fairly well documented evidence that taking up intensive exercise in middle age can have an adverse effect on joints. One example is cycling, which can be a particular problem for the hips. The advice is to adapt.
For some people, this will involve using the assistive and supportive devices that are available. These protect the joint, supporting it and preventing excessive strain. Back and knee supports are particularly useful in that they not only support joints but also keep them warm which can greatly reduce pain and ease movement.
For others, this may be the point at which they start to switch from high impact exercise, to more gentle forms. Alexander technique, Pilates, T'ai chi and the gentler kinds of yoga are all forms of exercise that increase balance and range of movement without stressing joints. And don’t forget that joints are supported by cartilage and muscle, and that stronger muscles can take some of the strain off joints.
It’s recommended that you should undertake range-of motion, strengthening and aerobic exercises on a regular basis. Range-of-motion exercises take a joint through its normal movement and can help with stiffness. Never force the joint when you are doing this kind of exercise.
Strengthening exercises are aimed not so much at the joint, as at the muscles which support and protect the joint. Some examples of these are walking up and down stairs, exercise bike sessions or leg lifts.
Aerobic exercises are sometimes also known as endurance exercises. These help your heart health and circulation, for example brisk walking or running are both aerobic.
One of the ways in which you can avoid becoming stiff, is stretching. Stretching helps you to keep your joints mobile. Mobile joints help you to move more easily. Moving more easily stops you becoming stiff - it’s a virtuous circle. If you’re gardening, don’t spend ages in one position, and think about cushioning your knees if you are spending a long period weeding or planting.
I’m still going to run that marathon….
If you’re still really determined to run that marathon - good on you! Only let’s look at how you can minimise any adverse effects on your joints both in training and on the big day. Most of the problems that physios encounter in runners have built up gradually over time. Don’t ignore joints that are aching, swollen or sore - your body is trying to tell you something. Get help early, and if necessary scale back the intensity of your training regime. Doing too much too soon is not going to help you get there in the end.
You won’t be surprised to hear that maintaining a sensible weight is important in avoiding some of the joint problems associated with osteoarthritis and mechanical strain on joints. The load on your knee when you walk, is equivalent to five or six times your body weight, so every kilo you lose takes five or six times as much load off your knees. Fat is also inflammatory - so excess weight may increase the levels of inflammation in your body, inflaming and damaging your joints.
But whatever your weight, you will still need to think about the shoes you’re wearing and how much support they are offering your skeleton as you walk along the street. Hospital podiatrists advise that the thickness of the shoe’s sole is really important because it’s acting as a shock absorber when your foot strikes the ground. So if you’re a glamour puss addicted to high heels, you may want to save them for special occasions. They increase the loading on your knees and ankles and there are some reports that they may actually contribute to osteoarthritis.
Glucosamine supplementation continues to be passionately debated, with some ardent supporters swearing that it has changed their lives and others arguing that it has no effect at all. Glucosamine is present in joint cartilage, so the theory is that extra glucosamine will help the joint to heal. A sensible suggestion is to try a supplement for three months, before deciding whether or not it has helped your joints. But be aware that glucosamine may have side effects. There are some reports that it can increase blood sugar levels, so you need to be careful if you have diabetes. There are also warnings that it may not be suitable for people taking blood-thinning medication, so it is always best to discuss it with your doctor before you start taking it.
And don’t forget that Glucosamine is frequently made from shellfish, so if you’re allergic to them make sure that you choose a vegetarian type.
Diet and vitamins
Two of the most important vitamins and minerals for healthy bones are calcium and vitamin D, so let’s look at these.
We all know that calcium is important for strong bones but it’s perhaps less well known that the calcium doesn’t need to come from cow’s milk. This is good news for those who are intolerant. Goats or other animals can produce calcium-rich milk, and some soya and non-dairy milks are calcium enriched. There have been reports that calcium pills can affect heart health, so Arthritis Research UK advises getting the calcium from a food source rather than a supplement.
The same organisation also recommends a daily intake of calcium of 1,000 milligrams (mg). If this seems daunting, remember that cheese and yoghurt contain calcium, and fish such as sardines with soft bones which are eaten along with the fish, also contribute to your calcium intake.
However, for calcium to be absorbed, you need to have Vitamin D in your system. One of the key concerns in our frequently sun-starved isles, can be Vitamin D deficiency. This vitamin isn’t found in a wide range of foods, although our little friend the sardine once again appears on the radar because oily fish is an excellent source. Vitamin D is made when we expose our skin to sunlight, and fifteen minutes of sunshine on the face and arms per day is enough. Some people find that they need Vitamin D supplementation, especially if they are over 60, have darker skin or can’t get out in the sun as much as they would wish to. It’s wise to ask your doctor about this before taking any supplement
When it comes to an eating plan for joint health, it’s important to eat as varied a diet as possible, in order to get as many vitamins, anti-oxidants and minerals as you can. Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish, for example, may be protective, and in general a Mediterranean diet high in fruit, vegetables, grains and olive oil appears to be beneficial.
One of the most powerful ways in which you can protect your joints, and your general health, requires no effort at all. Sleep is when the repair of our bodies takes place, and sleep helps our body in the same way as appropriate exercise and healthy eating. A significant number of studies have also shown that sufficient sleep is a key driver in maintaining a healthy body weight and sleep deprivation is a factor in obesity.
It’s particularly important for people in their fifties to bear this in mind. This can be a stressful decade, with children needing financial and emotional support as they go out into the world, often at just the same time as parents begin to need care and help. Business worries, financial pressures, family problems - they can all lead to poor sleep and this, in turn, can cause stiff and aching joints in the morning, so try to make a good sleep regime as important in your life as healthy eating.
If you follow the above principles, you can make the fifties the decade in which you repair, preserve and strengthen your joints - and they’ll repay you by giving you an active and enjoyable life in the decades to come.