When our joints hurt, our instinct whispers "don't move." Yet our muscles weaken from not being used enough. When weak, they can't support our weight. This increases pressure on the joints and causes greater pain.
"The muscles are what help to bear the stress on the joint," says Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. To break this damaging cycle, turn to strength training.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our October 2011 issue, we asked Dimitrios Pappas, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, about the long-term effects of one popular childhood activity: knuckle cracking.
Q: My 10-year-old son cracks his knuckles. Is it true that it causes arthritis?
You'll find that you can actually ease joint pain by building strong muscles. That's not all. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you burn while at rest, which helps you stay at a healthy weight. Also, strength training may reduce your risk for osteoporosis (brittle bones). "The stronger your muscles are, the less likely you are to injure yourself" if you take a spill, Rubin says.
Before starting to do strength training with free weights or a machine, you should talk to your doctor to find out what kind of program is best for you, and you may want to have an instructor supervise your workout rather than do it on your own. Of all exercises, the risk for injury is greatest with weightlifting.
If you lift weights the wrong way, or try to lift too much too soon, you could tear a muscle or get tendonitis (painful inflammation of the tendon). What's more, if you're not working all the muscle groups equally, your posture and balance can be thrown off. So it's a good idea to have someone teach you how to do it properly.
There are more plusses to working with an instructor than there are minuses, so don't scratch strength training off your list yet.
Geri Neuberger, a nursing professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, recently did a study on older men and women in which one group exercised with a trainer three times a week. "They got pretty attached to that person," she says. In addition to the bond you might develop with your trainer, you could make new friends if you work out with a group.