10 Habits That Can Wreck Joint Health

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 21, 2014
5 min read

You know high heels might cause achy joints. But those aren’t the only things that aren't so good for your joints. What you do -- or don't do -- every day can make a big difference in how your joints feel and function, both now and in the long term.

Here are 10 habits that you should break, for your joints' sake.

Typing, texting on your phone, dicing food, and other activities that make you repeat the same motion over and over can tax larger joints like your shoulder, as well as smaller joints like your thumbs.

The solution is simple: Take a break every 2 to 3 minutes, says Zacharia Isaac, MD, medical director of Brigham and Women's Multidisciplinary Spine Center. Try to avoid the activity if the joints it uses already don't feel so great. For example, call instead of texting, and use a headset if your conversation will last more than 5 minutes.

Just about everyone needs to move more. It's not only about exercise; it's about not sitting still for too long.

Remaining in the same position for long periods of time can tire your muscles and strain your joints and cartilage, in part because blood flow to these areas can go down when you’re not moving. “If you’re standing, reading, or working at a computer, be sure to stretch or shift positions every 10 to 15 minutes,” Isaac says.

Loading too much into your bag can alter your posture and walking stride, strain the muscles and joints in your neck, and even press on your shoulder joints, compressing delicate nerves, says Michael Perry, MD, medical director of the Laser Spine Institute.

“Weigh your purse when it’s full,” Perry says. "It should be no more than 5% of your body weight." If you weigh 140 pounds, that’s 7 pounds.

If you wear a backpack, those distribute weight more evenly than a purse, so you can carry more weight in them. But if it feels uncomfortable, or causes you pain or soreness, it's too heavy, Perry says.

Of all exercise, strength training can be especially protective, because it builds and strengthens supportive muscles around the joints. For example, working your quads can help protect your knees, says Abby Goulder-Abelson, MD, rheumatology department chair at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Abelson recommends strength training a few times a week. You can lift weights or do exercises that use your body weight for resistance. Those include Pilates and yoga, though some forms of yoga may be too gentle to be effective for strength training, Abelson says.

New to exercise, or unsure if you’re exercising safely? Seek out a certified personal trainer or a physical therapist to create a workout plan for you.

If any of your joints have been hurting for more than a week, don’t try to power through the pain: “Your body’s trying to tell you something,” Abelson says.

Instead, see your doctor. If you also have symptoms like tenderness, stiffness, and swelling, your doctor will determine if it’s normal aches and pains or something more.

If your doctor recommends treatment, don’t delay. Taking action now can restore normal function and even prevent more serious problems down the road, says orthopedic spine surgeon Michael Gleiber, MD, of the Florida Atlantic University College of Medicine.

When you start a new exercise plan, or take your existing one up a notch, start slowly. And always pay attention to how your joints (and the rest of your body) feel.

“I have patients who do triathlons in their 50s and 60s without hurting their joints because they’ve trained slowly and carefully to build stamina and strength,” Abelson says. Sharp pain or soreness that lasts more than a few hours after exercise is a sign you’re overdoing it.

You need calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. Also, "low levels of vitamin D have been linked to decreased muscle strength," Abelson says.

For calcium, go for low-fat and no-fat dairy or other fortified drinks, like almond milk or soy milk. For vitamin D, good food sources include naturally fatty fish like salmon, and cereals or drinks fortified with vitamin D. If you're not sure if you're getting enough, or if you think you might need a supplement, check with your doctor.

A good night's rest can make a big difference in how you feel. Start with good sleep habits, like cutting out caffeine at least 6 hours before bed, avoiding alcohol, and exercising regularly.

If you're still not sleeping well, talk to your doctor to get to the bottom of what’s getting in the way of a good night’s sleep.

Also, check that your mattress isn't too saggy. A Lancet study found that a medium-firm model was the most effective at preventing back pain.

The heavier you are, the more pressure your joints endure -- especially your hips, knees, and spine, which bears the weight of your trunk.

“Excess weight overtaxes your cartilage, which serves as your joints’ ‘shock absorber,’ causing pain and contributing to cartilage tears that may require surgery,” Gleiber says.

To ease the load on your joints, talk to your doctor about a diet and exercise plan that will help you reach and maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI), Gleiber says.

If you smoke or use any other tobacco products, work on quitting.

“Nicotine constricts tiny blood vessels that supply blood to your joints, especially the disks in your spine,” Gleiber says. "People who smoke or chew tobacco are at a much higher risk for spine and joint problems, even as early as their 30s.”