Ouch! Getting older hurts. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily have to. Most people will experience increased aches and pains as they age, but it isn’t inevitable. The increased incidence of painful conditions like osteoarthritis and back pain often cause people to take multiple medications and even resort to serious surgery.
Sometimes these extreme measures are necessary, but many times lifestyle changes can prevent or significantly reduce the aches and pains we associate with aging. In this article, I’ll talk about some of these options and how you can apply them to your life.
As a reminder, you should always seek care from a medical professional when dealing with health issues. The information here will help to educate you, but a physician or other medical expert will help you choose the right treatment for your individual needs.
Taking Care of Your Body
I had a chance to speak with Pamela Goldsten, a third year Doctor of Physical Therapy student at the University of Minnesota. Pam discussed the importance of keeping our bodies in great shape as we get older. Here are four areas she discussed that can help prevent or minimize pain.
• Keep moving.
When we hurt, our instinct is to stay sedentary to avoid exacerbating the pain. Pam explained that our joints were meant to move, so exercising will actually increase joint integrity and help to reduce future pain. Even if you do have arthritis or chronic pain, movement is beneficial and will help to prevent increased injury.
Walking is the best exercise to keep moving, because it is low impact and has less of a risk of injury than other forms of exercise. Walking is also a weight bearing exercise which helps to preserve bone density and slow the progression of osteoporosis. Bicycling and swimming are also great exercise choices, however they are not weight-bearing so you would want to supplement them by alternating with walking if possible.
So is there a time that exercise could cause more damage than good? In the event of an acute injury or acute flair up of arthritis, you really would want to take a break to let your body rest and heal. Checking in regularly with a physician and physical therapist will help you understand your body’s exercise capacity and limitations.
Strengthening the muscles around your joints helps to preserve the joint cartilage. This makes for healthier and stronger joints. In particular, it is also good for arthritis as it supports joints and offloads the grinding, which causes pain and deterioration. One of the best way to strengthen your muscles is by walking more. Sound familiar? This exercise is a serious multitasker.
In addition, water exercise classes are a great option. The water reduces pressure on the joints while still providing resistance to increase strength. Lastly, visiting a physical therapist will help you to learn how to safely perform exercises for particularly weak areas.
• Proper posture.
Sitting and standing properly throughout the day has a hugely positive impact on our bodies. Pam described, “The human body is mechanically designed in a beautiful way to sustain normal stresses of life like walking and working. Yet we need to maintain good posture to let our body do its job.” If we have subpar posture we’re putting increased strain on our joints, which can cause physical damage and pain especially to your neck, shoulders and lower back.
I needed a little reminder of the definition of “good posture,” so Pam enlightened me. While sitting, your shoulders should be relaxed and positioned directly over your hips. Your neck should be straight and your gaze should be straight ahead, not downward. Pam explained that everything in our body can work better with proper posture. Need convincing? Take a deep breath sitting up straight and then try it again hunched over. It was much easier sitting up, because your organs weren’t constricted.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
Extra weight means extra stress on your joints, especially on your knees, hips, and ankles. According to the Arthritis Foundation, for every pound of extra body weight, your knees experience three times and your hips experience six times as much added pressure. This leads to increased wear on the joints, which equals more pain. Check in with a doctor to determine a healthy and realistic goal weight. Gradual weight loss is always the best strategy to ensure that you are able to keep the weight off.
Eating the Pain Away
There are plenty of ways that diet can help (or hurt) body pain. Pain is most often linked to inflammation, so the goal here is simple. You should aim to increase consumption of anti-inflammatory foods while cutting back on foods that promote inflammation.
• Stock up on produce.
Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables will help encourage an anti-inflammatory state. Produce contains chemicals called phytonutrients, which help to fight free radical damage and reduce inflammation in the body. To ensure that you are getting benefits from a variety of different phytonutrients, aim to eat fruits and vegetables from all the color groups.
• Eat the right fats.
Monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids are the types you should be eating. These types of fats help to reduce inflammation that’s present in our bodies from everyday stresses. Good sources include: avocado, wild salmon and other cold water fish, walnuts, ground flaxseeds and chia seeds. Extra virgin olive oil is a great choice for salads, and expeller pressed canola oil is ideal for cooking since it has a higher smoke point. Also, aim to completely avoid trans fats, which promote inflammation. Trans fats are common in baked goods and margarines and are often labeled as partially hydrogenated oil.
• Spice up your life.
Ginger, turmeric and chili peppers have particularly potent anti-inflammatory properties. The compounds in these spices have been shown in multiple studies to reduce inflammation and pain. Try adding fresh ginger and turmeric or hot peppers to stir-fries and soups. If only dried is available, make sure to buy a high quality brand so you can be assured that its active properties haven’t been damaged due to excessive processing.
• Throw out the processed stuff.
Refined grains and sugars are harmful to your body. They cause your blood sugar to spike, which encourages inflammation. Choose whole grains like brown rice and quinoa instead of bread. Also, try to cut back on consumption of added sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Instead, opt for naturally sweet foods like fresh fruit for snacks.
These lifestyle tips should have a big impact on pain prevention. Try incorporating only one or two at a time for gradual and lasting change.
Here is an anti-inflammatory tea recipe for a particularly achy day or any time you want to give your body a little extra love.
“Feel Good Ginger
½ cup grated turmeric (or 1 ½ tablespoons ground turmeric)
½ cup grated ginger (or 1 ½ tablespoons ground ginger)
8 cups water
Juice of one lemon
Several shakes of black pepper (to help your body absorb the turmeric)
Honey, to taste
Add turmeric, ginger, pepper and water to a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, careful to not let water reach boiling. Strain and enjoy. Serves 4-6. Serve hot or chilled.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in nutrition and public health from the University of North Carolina. She is also a registered dietitian. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at [email protected].