How to Protect Your Joints During Exercise

Exercise is good for your heart, helps with weight loss and provides a variety of health-related benefits. At the same time, exercise comes with a certain degree of injury risk, and depending on the activity, it can also put a lot of stress on your joints. But is that enough reason to opt out of exercise? Most experts would say no. The key is to exercise safely and choose activities and movements that reduce your risk of injury, pain or other complications.

So how do you protect your joints during exercise to make sure you're not doing more harm than good? By creating an exercise routine based on your individual needs and abilities, as well as taking some precautionary measures, you can reduce your risk of injury and make exercise an enjoyable part of your daily routine--not an added stressor.

Common Joint Injuries

Joint injuries occur for a variety of reasons, including improper training or technique, overuse, sudden directional changes and even falls. Of course, there are health conditions that affect the joints, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and degenerative disc disease (the spine is comprised of many joints), but this article will focus on preventable injuries, not these chronic conditions.
The most common injuries happen to joints that are subjected to repeated impact, which will vary depending on the activity. For example, injuries to runners and walkers typically affect the hip, knee and ankle joints, since the lower body absorbs most of the impact during these activities. Tennis players often have elbow joint problems from the repeated swing of the racquet. Weightlifters commonly experience shoulder joint problems, especially if they regularly perform upper body exercises using very heavy weight. And people who play high-speed contact sports (such as basketball or soccer) can often experience injuries like joint sprains, twists or tears due to the torque of a sudden change in direction or a fall. But you don't have to be a serious athlete to experience injury.

7 Common Mistakes that Lead to Joint Injury

Everyday exercisers and weekend warriors often suffer injury due to a few common mistakes that can be prevented with careful attention. Here's what to be aware of so you can move and exercise without joint pain or injury. 

1. Doing too much, too soon. When starting a new exercise program, motivation is typically high.  It's easy to get caught up and decide that while a 30-minute workout is good, a 2-hour workout is even better. Before you know it, you've got nagging knee pain and have to stop your workout routine completely. Joint pain and injury is common when you don't allow the body to adapt slowly to exercise. Remember, it's not just your heart and lungs that need to slowly work up to harder or longer workouts; every system in your body needs time to adapt: your muscles, circulatory system, ligaments, cartilage and even your bones and joints. It's important to ease into exercise, regardless of how motivated you are to do more--even if it feels "OK" at the time. Start with lighter activity, shorter durations, and less frequent workouts (to allow for some recovery days) and then progress as you feel up to it--but no more than about 10% per week.<pagebreak

2. Performing the same activities all the time. It's important to find activities you enjoy, because that makes it easier to stick with an exercise routine. But you can end up with too much of a good thing if you are always doing the same activity all the time. For example, you like running so you do it every day as your only form of exercise. Taxing the same muscles (and joints) in the same way day after day can easily lead to overuse injury and wearing down of cartilage. This is one reason why performing a variety of activities each week is important. By moving your muscles and joints in different directions and intensities, you can help prevent injury.

3. Wearing the wrong footwear. When heading into a specialty shoe store for the first time, it's easy to get sticker shock. Typically, there are lots of options, many of which can be expensive. Although you might save money by picking up some shoes on sale at your local discount store, you may also be increasing your risk of injury by wearing shoes that don't meet your needs. Employees at a specialty store are often able to analyze your foot, gait and foot strike, and look for any mechanical or anatomical issues to determine the right shoe for you. Plus, athletic shoes are designed for specific purposes. Running shoes often provide some motion control and cushioning for forward motion, but won't have the ankle support you'd need for playing basketball, which involves a lot of lateral movement and sudden directional changes. An investment in good footwear for your specific activity can prevent injury and pain, as well as the expense from doctor's visits and physical therapy. 

4. Exercising with improper technique. Whether riding a stationary bike or lifting weights, proper technique is essential to preventing joint injury. For example, if the seat of the bike isn't positioned properly, it can put extra pressure on the knee that wouldn't otherwise occur, increasing the risk of injury. If you try a new weight machine at the gym without knowing how to use it, this increases your risk of injury. If you don't have ideal gait patterns or alignment (and most people don't), you are putting your joints at risk with every step, lunge, jump and squat--unless you know how to correct yourself.

The truth is, few people without formal instruction know how to line up every joint and move through the correct range of motion that keeps their joints safe. While it's something anyone can learn, it takes diligence and attention during every movement--not just in the beginning, but forever. If you aren't sure how to do an exercise properly, ask! Most gyms have trained fitness staff who are there to help. You could also hire a personal trainer for a short time to learn these basics, or even go to a group fitness class where a qualified instructor will be able to explain and point out those keys so that all participants stay safe.

5. Skipping the warm up, cool down or stretches. When you're short on time, it's tempting to skip one (or more) of these pieces of the workout routine. But there is an important reason for each one, and choosing not to do them can lead to joint injury.  A proper warm up safely prepares the body for the increased demands of exercise by generating heat, increasing circulation to the muscles and joints, and lubricating the joints for activity. Cold muscles do not absorb shock or impact as well, and are more susceptible to injury, so always warm up for at least a few minutes before you work out. The cool down brings your heart rate back to normal slowly and safely, which helps prevent pooling of the blood in the extremities (which can cause dizziness or fainting), and stretching after a workout (when the muscles are warmer, lubricated and more elastic) helps maintain and increase joint mobility.

6. Doing too many high-impact exercises. Joint injury can occur more easily during high-impact activities. It's a common belief that high-impact means "hard" and low-impact means "easy," but these actually describe the intensity of your body striking the ground. If one or both of your feet is off the ground, even for a split second (such as when you run or jump), the exercise is high-impact, meaning your body has to absorb a higher impact of shock when you come in contact with the ground. Because high-impact exercises put more stress on the joints and skeletal system, they actually help strengthen bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. However, the higher the impact, the greater the injury potential.

Assuming you have a doctor's clearance and take good care of your body, you can still perform high-impact activities safely when you take certain precautions (like using proper form). But more importantly, aiming for a variety of impact levels in your workouts is ideal. Too much high-impact is, well, too much for the joints. If you are looking for activities that are easier on the joints, there are a number of options available. Swimming, water exercise and biking are all no-impact cardiovascular workouts. Some low-impact options include walking, biking and the elliptical. Just because an activity doesn't involve lots of running and jumping doesn't mean it can't be a great workout. As long as the activity is challenging and gets your heart rate up into the cardio zone, you'll be on your way to losing weight and improving your fitness level. 

7. Skimping on rest. Most people think that exercise itself is what leads you to be stronger and fitter, but it's actually the rest that happens after a workout that creates those positive changes in your body. When it comes to getting results and protecting your joints, rest is just as important as exercising with good form. You aren't being lazy by taking rest days--you're being smart. Taking days off from exercise helps prevent overuse injuries, stress fractures, and joint inflammation that can lead to pain. Recovery is the time your body uses to adapt to the stresses you've put on it, as well as repair tissues that were damaged during your workouts. If you avoid rest days and don't give your muscles and joints a chance to recover, you'll continue to break the body down instead of making it stronger. A good rule of thumb is to allow for one to two rest days per week. This doesn't mean you have to sit on the couch all day and do nothing. It's okay to do some light activity, like go for a walk or do an easy yoga session. But your activity shouldn't be intense or challenging. Your body--and your joints--need the time to rest and repair.

It's easy to assume that older adults or those with previous injuries are most at risk for joint problems. But the fact is, anyone can experience joint pain or injury if they aren't careful.  If you are new to exercise, or if you have had joint problems in the past, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor or work with a qualified personal trainer before you start an exercise plan. These professionals can give you personalized advice based on your medical history and offer tips to help you have a safer workout.

While there is some inherent risk in any type of exercise, the benefits of working out regularly far outweigh the risks for most people. With attention to the prevention and safety tips above, you'll be strengthening and protecting your joints for the rest of your life by exercising your body regularly.