How to Strengthen Your Joints

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

As you age, you lose muscle and bone mass, which can lead to joint problems. Building and maintaining joint strength now can help you stay active and ward off problems down the road.

Exercise improves bone density and keeps the muscles that surround your joints strong, says A. Lynn Millar, PhD, professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.

“Any type of exercise can be used to build and maintain joint health, though weight-bearing activities are better for building bone density,” Millar says. “Walking, running, and cycling are all great options.”

Building muscle strength, especially in your legs, is another way to maintain healthy joints, Millar says.

Try these three resistance exercises, which use your own body weight to work your hips and legs. Do them 2-3 days a week.

  • Squats. Try 3 sets of 10 repetitions. Or do fewer repetitions and hold at the bottom for 15-30 seconds. As you lower yourself down, reach back with your butt like you’re sitting in a chair, and don’t let your knees pass your toes.
  • Lunges. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side. Keep your trunk upright and your knees pointing straight forward.
  • Airplane (Warrior) Pose. Hold this standing pose for 10-30 seconds. Do 2-3 repetitions on each side. Stand on one leg and slowly bend forward from your hip, raising your other leg to point straight behind you. Bring your arms to reach out past your head. It’s OK to use the back of a chair to help you balance.

You can also try resistance bands, free weights, or gym equipment, says Calin Moucha, MD, associate chief of joint replacement surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital.

These exercises work your trunk and strengthen your core. Do them 2-3 days a week.

  • Curl-Ups: Start with 3 sets of 15. Lie with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Slowly curl up from your head and shoulders. Clear your shoulder blades from the floor, then curl back down.
  • Pushups: Start with 1 set of 10 and increase as you improve. Make sure to keep your abs and butt tight the whole time. It’s OK to use a modified position (on your knees) if necessary.
  • Side Plank: Lie on your right side. Raise your body and legs off the ground but keep your elbow, forearm, and foot firmly planted. Your body should remain in a straight line from head to foot. Extend your left arm up. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side. Millar suggests starting with your elbow and forearm on the ground instead of with your arm extended.

Cardio work lubricates joints, strengthens muscles around joints, and improves circulation, Millar says. It also helps with weight control, which can ease stress on your hips, knees, and ankles.

If you have any joint issues, choose low-impact exercises like swimming or biking, which put less stress on joints than high-impact activities like running or kickboxing. Shoot for 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise, 3-5 days a week.

“As we get older, our muscles lose flexibility, and that can lead to more injuries,” Moucha says.

Stretching your muscles when they’re warm, which is usually after exercise, can prevent joint problems. If you feel stiff, stretch during your warm-up, too.

Stretch each muscle 3-5 times. Hold for 30-60 seconds.

Warm up for 5 minutes before you exercise. It helps prep your muscles for exercise and makes injury less likely.

Wear protective equipment when you exercise or play sports. Protective pads and athletic shoes that fit well protect your knees from injury and may lower your chances of joint issues later in life. Elbow, wrist, and joint braces or guards lighten the load on your joints.

Don't do the same thing every day -- vary your activities. That's "an excellent way of preventing injuries, as different muscle groups are used during different types of activities,” Moucha says.

Dropping pounds takes extra pressure off your joints, especially your hips and knees. Research suggests that losing weight can also help keep your joints healthy.