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5 Ways to Avoid Arthritis
by Mary Barlow

Reduce your risk for arthritis, or manage arthritis symptoms, with these tips.

Many people think arthritis simply comes with "old age." However, more than half of those diagnosed with the disease are under 65. And while it's true that aging and genetic factors increase your risk of developing arthritis, it's also true that a healthy lifestyle significantly decreases your odds. What you eat, how much you exercise, and whether you smoke can also ease symptoms if you already suffer with arthritis.

Arthritis is defined as simply inflammation of joints, but it is a complicated disease with more than 120 forms. It can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and other problems not just to the joints, but to muscles, bones, and in some cases, even skin. The most common type is osteoarthritis, which occurs when cartilage in joints breaks down.

Since arthritis is the number one cause for disability among Americans, a little prevention can go a long way. Here's what you can do right now to decrease your risk of getting arthritis or relieve your symptoms if you've been diagnosed. (These recommendations apply mostly to preventing osteoarthritis, but they include good general health advice for almost everyone.)

1. Exercise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week, and strength training at least two days a week for everyone, including people with chronic conditions such as arthritis. This is consistent with recommendations of the Arthritis Foundation and other arthritis experts who agree that:

  • Aerobic (walking, running) and stretching (yoga, tai chi) exercises help keep your joints supple and well lubricated.
  • Strength training (free weights, nautilus machines, Pilates) helps you maintain bone mass and strong muscles around the joints, helping to protect them.

Researchers are now finding that our bodies wear more from lack of use than from exercise. For example, it was once thought that long-distance running put people at higher risk for osteoarthritis, particularly around the knees. However, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, "Vigorous exercise (running) at middle and older ages is associated with reduced disability in later life and a notable survival advantage."

2. Eat a healthy diet.
Aim to get all of the nutrients your body needs to properly function and to take in the right amount of calories to sustain your ideal weight. That's easy to say, but tricky to do. Recent studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is the best one known to prevent and ease arthritis. It emphasizes plenty of vegetables, fish, fruit, and nuts, and fewer red and processed (e.g., ham, bacon, deli meats, and hot dogs) meats.

3. Maintain a healthy weight.
People who are obese are four times as likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knees. This is mainly due to two reasons. First, excess weight puts added pressure on the joints, and second, being heavy limits activity. Since a lack of exercise is another risk factor, it only worsens the problem. If losing weight has been difficult, try to make gradual changes. For instance, if you can eat 250 fewer calories a day while burning up 250 more calories a day, you could potentially lose a pound a week. Depending on your lifestyle, that might mean replacing a rich snack with a brisk walk.

4. Talk with your doctor about supplements.
The best source of any nutrient comes from food. However, when it's difficult to get adequate vitamins and minerals from your diet, it may be wise to talk to your doctor about taking supplements.

  • Calcium is highly important in preventing osteoporosis, a type of bone disease that causes weak, brittle bones. While osteoporosis is not arthritis, it can cause painful fractures or make joint replacement surgery more difficult. The recommended amount of calcium for adults is 1,000 mg for 19 to 50 year olds, 1,200 mg for adults over 50, and 1,300 mg for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Try to limit substances that decrease calcium absorption, including alcohol, caffeine, and tea.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Fish, particularly cold-water fish such as salmon, provide the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. You can also get them from flaxseed, walnut, and canola oil. If you'd prefer supplements, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends 3 grams per day to reduce morning stiffness for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Glucosamine, often taken with chondroitin sulfate, helps relieve pain, according to many people who suffer from arthritis. However, a study* done in February 2006 found that glucosamine "did not provide significant relief from osteoarthritis pain among all participants." A small subgroup of participants who had "moderate-to-severe pain showed significant relief with the combined supplements." The Arthritis Foundation recommends that patients considering glucosamine work with their doctors to come up with a treatment plan that's best for them.

5. Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
Smoking and secondhand smoke weigh heavily on the immune system, increasing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis for people who have a genetic predisposition for the disease. For people who already have rheumatoid arthritis, smoking is also known to worsen symptoms and increase the risk of complications.

For more information, please visit the Arthritis Foundation.

*The study was the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT) funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

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Anatomy of a Joint
Joints provide hinges for where two bones meet. There are 360 joints in the body, which allow your body to move. However, when these parts are inflamed, swollen, or weak—as in the case of various forms of arthritis—pain and stiffness result, limiting the joint's mobility.
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