Weight Loss Strategies for Osteoarthritis

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on December 14, 2017
4 min read

Osteoarthritis (OA) happens because of wear and tear on cartilage, the cushion between bones in your joints. And there are no pills or shots that can slow down that process.

But here’s what can: weight loss. If you’re overweight, shedding pounds can ease arthritis pain now and lower your chances of serious joint damage and surgery down the road, says Amanda Sammut, MD, chief of rheumatology at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City.

How can you harness this powerful arthritis treatment? Make a plan with your doctor’s help.

If you’re overweight, your chances of getting arthritis in your knee are four to five times higher than someone who’s not.

Weight loss can help prevent OA -- and treat it if you already have it -- in a few ways:

  • It eases the pressure on your joints, like your knees and hips. The less extra weight you have to carry, the less wear and tear on your body. A loss of just 10 pounds can take 30 to 40 pounds of pressure off your knees when you walk, Sammut says.
  • It may lower levels of proteins that cause swelling. Fat cells create proteins that cause swelling throughout your body and can damage joints. Weight loss can help you lose extra fat and may ease swelling, even in joints that don’t carry your weight. 

The benefits of weight loss can be dramatic. If people who are overweight lose 10% of their body weight -- 20 pounds for a 200-pound person -- they can ease their joint pain by half.

There’s no secret formula for weight loss when you have OA. It’s all about more physical activity and a healthier diet. But it’s hard to make those changes stick in the real world.

That’s why rheumatologist Rebecca Manno, MD, recommends you get help from the experts right from the start.

“You need a structured plan you can follow,” says Manno, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Professionals can help you create a custom-tailored approach. In addition to your doctor, she suggests you work with:

  • A physical therapist, who can help you work on a personalized physical activity plan that takes your achy joints, age, and other things into account.
  • A dietitian or nutritionist, whocan help you come up with a healthy eating approach that reflects your nutrition needs and personal likes and dislikes.

Manno says you don’t have to see these experts for a long time. A few meetings can be enough to learn what you need to do. See what your insurance will cover.

How much weight do you need to lose? Sammut usually recommends that people with OA who are overweight start by losing about 10% of their body weight.

After that, you and your doctor can decide what your next steps should be. If you need to lose more weight, aim for dropping 1 or 2 pounds per month. Sammut says some people just focus on not gaining more weight for a while before they start trying to lose. Smaller goals are easier to reach.

There’s no ideal OA weight loss plan for everyone. You need to find what works for you. But some of these tips can get you on the right path.

Keep a food diary. Manno suggests you write down everything you eat for a few weeks before you make any changes to your habits. Then you have an idea of what you really eat and not what you think you eat. Look it over with your doctor or dietitian so you can decide where to improve. 

Start with easy changes to the foods you eat. If you make too many big changes to your diet at the start, you’re less likely to stick with it. For example, your first step could be to cut out sugary drinks like sodas, sports drinks, and juices. Sammut says it’s a simple way to get rid of some empty calories.

Don’t look for a miracle OA diet. There isn’t one. Your best bet is a typical healthy diet with lots of vegetables, and some fruits and whole grains. You can also include healthy fats (like olive oil and nuts) and proteins (like fish). Aim to cut down on processed foods, too. 

Choose exercise that isn’t hard on your joints. While everyone is different, you probably want to avoid activities that involve running or jumping, which can put a lot of stress on your joints. OA-friendly activities include walking, cycling, and swimming.

Exercises that build your strength are also important. Stronger muscles support your joints and take pressure off of them. You can try using resistance bands, lifting weights, or exercises that use your body weight. Gentle stretching moves like yoga and tai chi help, too. Find something you really like. Even ballroom dancing can be great exercise, Sammut says.

Make sure you’re ready. If you start a weight loss plan before you’re truly committed, you’re less likely to succeed. “For this to work, you have to believe that weight loss is really part of your treatment, just like the pills you take for blood pressure and cholesterol,” Manno says.

So don’t rush into anything. Talk over your approach with your doctor and family. Think about the short- and long-term benefits. Weight loss is always a challenge under any circumstances. But when it comes to OA, it’s one of the most powerful treatments we have.