Arthritis: Exercise and Food for Your Joints

[For Patients]

More than 80% of older adults over the age of 65 have some form of osteoarthritis, also more commonly known as arthritis. In fact, arthritis has more than doubled in the last 50 years! How did we get to this point? Is it just a matter of better imaging or are we actually seeing a change within our bony structures? More importantly what can we do to prevent the continual growth of osteoarthritis within our population?

The answer lies within several studies that were published recently. Epidemiologists and researchers going back and measuring the skeletons of our ancestors have shown that physical exercise and activity have been an integral part of our lifestyle and bodies. With modern technology and changes to our lifestyle we have become less agrarian and less active. As a consequence our bones and bodies have changed. We have gained a little bit more weight, our joints have not gotten used to not being used, and we suffer from other ailments related to changes within our diet. A study in the Journal of American Medical Association shows that weight gain and lack of physical exercise is probably the biggest driver for inflammatory arthritis.

Studies show that the current American diet promotes inflammation and can actually worsen arthritis. Several studies show that those that are on a plant-based diet have less inflammation and are less likely to have osteoarthritis. Excessive fat, meat consumption, and pro-inflammatory processed foods likely help to drive arthritis.

Some of the best things that we can do for arthritis include exercise and lifestyle changes, including changes in diet. Many rehab pros know that exercise can offer significant benefits and typically involves strengthening the muscles around our joints. For example for knee and hip arthritis, exercises that strengthen the upper thigh muscles and hip muscles have been shown to improve strength, function, and pain. Another component that can greatly help rehabilitation professionals and patients alike, is a drastic change in the foods we consume. Adopting a plant-based diet will likely offer the biggest anti-inflammatory benefit for those with arthritis. In addition a plant-based diet will confer benefits for our heart, brain, body weight, and other metabolic factors. Some supplements may offer short to medium term relief in pain and improvement in function; but in the long-run, nutrition and exercise seem to be the biggest drivers of joint health.

So, as you’re considering getting a steroid injection, surgery, or even a joint replacement, consider that exercise and diet probably have a bigger role in treating your arthritis than the traditional medical model. Because in the end, with the exception of joint replacement, there are no other truly evidence-based treatments for joint arthritis.

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Dr. Sean Wells

Author Dr. Sean Wells

Dr. Sean M. Wells, DPT, PT, OCS, ATC/L, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, CNPT, Cert-DN is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association, National Athletic Trainers’ Association, and National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is currently the owner of Wells Physical Therapy, a cash-based, mobile, concierge physical therapy and training company in Florida. He is also on faculty with Modern Manual Therapy - Eclectic Approach. Prior to this, Dr. Wells founded, grew, and sold his first cash-based PT facility. Dr. Wells has taught sports medicine and exercise physiology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels at Florida Gulf Coast University. His research interest includes lower back pain, nutrition and healing, and aging mechanisms/models. Sean has been published in the area of orthopedics, aging, and fitness. He has published one book on the dangers of CrossFit and is currently working on his 2nd book, Nutritional Physical Therapy. He was contributing author to the fitness section in E'Bella Magazine for 3 years, and has been featured in Redbook, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, and Eat This Not That blog.

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