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physical health

How to take care of your joints while exercising

Understanding how to keep joints safe when playing sports can support our wellbeing at every age. Read our expert tips on taking care of your joint health while exercising.

Joint health is crucial for maintaining physical health as we age, and every form of exercise benefits from healthy joints. From the most leisurely swim to a high-intensity fitness class, joint health is essential when it comes to leading an active and healthy life.

While it’s true that some forms of exercise increase load and pressure on our joints, like our knees, ankles and even the spine, regular exercise can help support our joints as we age.

What is joint health?

When we talk about joints in the body we mean the points where 2 or more bones meet to allow for movement, such as the knee, elbow and ankle, and in the fingers and toes.

Good joint health means pain-free, easy movement in that joint, that is not stiff or too loose. A healthy joint can take a reasonable load without experiencing symptoms like pain, swelling or sprain.

According to Better Health Victoria, the greater the range of movement in a particular joint, the greater the risk of injury. This is because the extra range of motion is more likely to weaken the joint strength over time. Knees and shoulders are the most commonly injured joints due to the large range of movement they can sustain.

Joint issues and injuries range from mild to more severe, and can include:

  • pain or swelling caused by injury
  • arthritis – the swelling or tenderness of one or more joints
  • bursitis – inflammation of the fluid-filled pads that cushion joints
  • tendonitis – inflammation of a tendon (common types are Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow)
  • infection.

How do I know if I’m at risk of joint injury or illness?

While certain joint conditions, like osteoarthritis (also known as ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, which is when the protective tissue at the end of our bones wears down), have risk factors relating to family history and obesity, some joint pain or problems are simply the result of wear and tear as we age, or are linked to previous injuries.

Sarah Evans, a strength and conditioning coach and exercise physiologist at Inspire Health Services, says the greatest risk factor for joint injury is doing nothing at all.

“Not moving can be one of the worst things we can do for our joints, because they’re designed to move and to have load put through them. If that doesn’t happen joints can get stiffer or dry, so then when we do use them it’s very uncomfortable,” she explains.

On the flip side, the sportier we are, the more likely we are to injure our joints if we don’t know how to take care of them – with some being more vulnerable than others.

“The most common sporting injuries I see are in the fingers, shoulders, knees, and ankles,” says Sarah. “They’re the joints that move the most or take the most load. Because they have greater range of motion, a lot more things happen to them.”

What can I do to help protect my joints from injury?

There are things we can do every day to help support and protect our joint health. We can learn a lot from the approach many elite athletes take, without the need for high-intensity training.

Netball Australia’s lead physiotherapist Alanna Antcliff says preparation and consistency are key when it comes to preventing injury, whether you’re an elite athlete or simply playing sports for fun.

“Preparation and strength training are like your armour. It can take 10 to 12 weeks to really build that protection, and then it needs to be continued to be effective,” says Alanna, who developed the KNEE injury prevention program, aimed initially at players aged 11-15 and now used by netballers of all ages and levels.

It’s important to note that, especially with younger players, strength training doesn’t mean pumping iron in the gym. “Body weight training can be effective in developing strength and control,” says Alanna. “That might be exercises such as squats, bridges, or balancing on one foot. It doesn’t need to be about lifting heavy weights.”

Another element of injury prevention that can get forgotten is rest.

“Every person’s body needs a break,” explains Alanna, who says it’s important not to over train, and people of all ages should build up to high-intensity sports after a period of rest.

What are some low-impact exercises that help support joint health?

Caring for our joints isn’t something we should only be concerned about in later life, or following an injury. Without good, healthy joints at every age our activity level and overall health can be affected.

Walking is one of the easiest forms of exercise we can do to keep our joints healthy. It ensures regular movement throughout the body while putting very little strain or stress on our primary joints, like the spine, knees, hips and ankles.

“Walking is something you can do every day that keeps your joints moving,” says Sarah. “But it’s important to mix it up. Walking, stretching, and even doing some gentle squats over the week will make sure you’re moving your whole body, which makes for better overall health. You could add an activity like swimming, too – backstroke is particularly good for working shoulder joints.”

Other low-impact exercise and sports that support healthy joints are:

  • Pilates
  • yoga
  • cycling
  • rowing
  • tai chi.

Is high-intensity exercise bad for joints?

High-intensity exercise that raises your heart rate and improves cardiovascular fitness doesn’t have to mean joint injury or pain.

However, diving straight into a netball team if you’ve never played, or suddenly doing burpees at the gym with no lead-up, isn’t smart.

Sarah encourages a slow start to any exercise or sport that puts sudden or extra load on joints.

“One of the best things you can do is an ongoing strength program, where you work on your technique and build up to any high-intensity movement,” she says. “When your body gets to practise the biomechanical movements, it will learn how to respond when you’re actually in the exercise class or playing those sports. The best way to prevent injury is to have strong muscles around your joints.”

If you have existing joint problems some exercises may be best avoided, like long-distance running or singles tennis (where there are prolonged periods of stress or load, and sudden changes of movements).

However other high-intensity team sports, like outdoor soccer or doubles tennis, can be gentler on joints, as there are regular breaks and lulls in pace and movement. There’s also a walking netball competition now available for seniors across Australia, which offers players a lower impact version of the popular sport.

At the gym, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes often incorporate short, sharp bursts of different exercises that you move on from quickly, meaning any stress on one particular joint is short-lived. Just be sure to learn the correct positions for each exercise before you throw yourself into a class: having good form is just as important as simply completing each interval.

Finally, it’s important not to forget the fundamental aspect of playing sports – which is to enjoy yourself. “Have fun!” says Alanna. “Sports are meant to be fun, and the benefits for your mental health are really important.”

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published March 2022

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