Being overweight can hurt. Carrying extra pounds puts added stress on your joints and that can cause your bone-cushioning cartilage to wear down, your ligaments to become strained and, as a result, you find yourself in constant pain. But what may hurt more than the day-in, day-out aches is how that joint pain can affect your ability to enjoy the things you love—that weekly tennis game with a friend, playing tag with your niece. You may already be all too familiar with how that feels.
Though years of being overweight (considered a BMI of 25 to 29.9) or obese (30 or higher) can contribute to joint damage that may not be able to be repaired simply by trimming down, losing weight might help you eliminate the possibility of getting to that point—and prevent any existing pain or damage from getting worse.
If you’ve struggled with finding and maintaining the motivation to stick with a weight loss plan in the past—it can be challenging—focus on the greater ease of movement and decreased discomfort that can come when you improve your joint health through weight loss. Understanding more about the ways in which weight can affect your joints can serve as constant inspiration to help you get to a healthy weight, one that allows you to enjoy your life, and your body, and all of its potential.
Each of your feet has 33 joints, along with 26 bones and more than 100 ligaments that work to keep you grounded. As you walk, bend, step and move throughout your day, you put pressure on all of those small parts. And if you are overweight, that can take a toll—too-taxed joints may cause tingling in your toes, throbbing ankles, swelling or even arthritis. Beyond making daily life tasks difficult, participation in physical activities can also become very uncomfortable. (Because exercise is so crucial to your health and such an important part of weight loss, talk to your doctor about activities that you can do safely and comfortably today, such as water aerobics or using an upper body ergometer.)
It’s estimated that your knees regularly absorb a force of three to six times your body weight with each step you take. Packing on the pounds increases that exponentially, which can cause painful inflammation, pressure and wear-and-tear. Knee pain is one of the most common joint pain complaints, ailing almost 18 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease and Control. One study found that the association between weight gain and knee pain was strongest in obese people, who experienced a 59-point increase in pain when they put on weight compared to just 6.4 points in non-obese people.
Occasional pain in your feet, knees and other areas can turn into something more chronic—the most common joint disorder, osteoarthritis (OA). This occurs when the cartilage—the cushion-like tissue that pads your joints—wears not only down but away because of the constant pressure it is under. Where bones once had a separator, they can now rub together, causing pain, stiffness and more. Extra body fat also releases pro-inflammatory chemicals and may raise your levels of leptin, a hormone that could play a role in the disease’s development.
Some with OA also grow extra bone in the affected area(s), which can exacerbate their discomfort, or experience weakness in the muscles surrounding the affected joint. Though this becomes more common with age, being overweight tends to speed up the development: Overweight women have almost four times the risk of OA as those in a healthy weight range, while men have five times the risk. The most commonly affected areas? The hands, knees, hips, back and neck.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Joints
There are a variety of strategies you can try to boost your overall joint health. It may take a few weeks for you to begin to feel stronger and experience fewer aches, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t notice a difference immediately. Every day can help bring you one step closer to living with less pain.
- Lose a Few Pounds: Losing weight helps take pressure off your joints, but you don't have to lose a lot to make a difference. Losing just 10 pounds relieves each knee of about a 30-pound load with every stride.
- Move More: Doing low-impact exercise, such as walking or swimming, can help you reduce your weight, so joints have less overall force to bear. Bonus? It can help strengthen muscles around your joints, for improved stability, and help prevent strains and sprains.
- Consider an Herbal Remedy: Some natural remedies have been shown to be effective anti-inflammatories that can help ease joint pain, making it more comfortable for you to move more. According to one study, taking 500 mg of the combined herbal supplements curcumin and boswellia twice daily was better than prescription drugs at relieving pain, increasing walking distance and minimizing joint tenderness. Ginger may also help relieve inflammation: You can take it as an herbal supplement or brew it as tea. Always seek the professional advice of an herbalist, and talk to your physician before trying anything new.
- Enjoy Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, which can alleviate symptoms like joint pain and stiffness. You can get omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon, sardines, tuna, flax seeds, soybeans and walnuts. Talk to your doctor about whether you are getting enough from your diet—a fish oil supplement can help fill the gap, if not.
- Try Massage Therapy: Studies have shown that people suffering from chronic joint pain enjoy a reduction in symptoms when they regularly get massages. Massage is also proven to lower stress and anxiety, which may help you lose weight. (If you find that stress triggers overeating, for example, a session may help you manage that tendency.) Think of massage as an emotional motivator: Booking a rub-down can be an inspiring reward as you dedicate yourself to healthy eating and regular exercise.
- Discuss Prescription Options: Your doctor can help you determine if there is a prescription that may bring you some joint pain relief. Glucosamine and Chondroitin, for example, help some people.