Achy joints add up as we age, just as many of us accumulate extra weight as the years go by. It turns out those extra pounds and joint pain conditions like arthritis are connected.
“From a physics perspective, weight and joints are related,” says Edward Mairura, MD, FAAOS, orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center. “More weight across a joint causes more wear and tear over time.”
Osteoarthritis occurs when repetitive motion damages tendons, ligaments, and the cartilage that connects and pads the ends of our bones. And when there’s extra weight on those joints, that damage is compounded.
Joints in the lower body carry the biggest burden; the hips, knees, and ankles, in particular. The strain isn’t equal to your body weight, but actually gets multiplied by gravity.
For example, an extra pound adds 4 pounds of pressure when you’re climbing a hill or stairs or kneeling to tie your shoes. On the flip side, that means losing 10 pounds has a compound effect on your aching joints, lightening the load by 40 pounds.
“Studies show that weight loss leads to improvements in back, hip, and knee pain,” Dr. Mairura says. “Losing 1 pound can lead to as much as a fourfold reduction in the load across the knee.”
Learn more about the connection between weight gain and joint pain.
Being overweight or obese contributes to arthritis in two ways. Dr. Mairura says:
- First, as described above, weight gain puts more stress on the joints in our lower extremities.
- And second, gaining weight can cause inflammation that spreads to other parts of the body, including the hands.
Weight gain causes inflammation throughout the body because fat is chemically active, constantly releasing proteins that inflame other tissue. In fact, studies show osteoarthritis is twice as common among obese patients.
So if you’re overweight, it’s a double whammy. The extra pounds put extra pressure on knees and hip joints, while the fat causes a chemical reaction that inflames those joints and others, causing arthritis to accelerate.
Injuries and other factors are also part of the equation, but weight is a risk factor we can control, Dr. Mairura says.
“There are genetic associations and traumatic events that damage cartilage, and sometimes it’s a combination of both,” he says. “Weight serves as one of the modifiable risk factors.”
In addition to eating healthy, exercise is the best bet for losing extra weight. Research by the Arthritis Foundation suggests losing 10% of your body weight can cut arthritis pain in half.
“I have several patients who have delayed surgery as a result of weight loss because their joints hurt less,” Dr. Mairura says.
But many overweight patients with painful joints avoid activity at all costs because exercise just adds to their misery. But resting that aching joint isn’t the answer. Rather, physical activity may be the best arthritis pain reliever that doesn’t come in a bottle.
Dr. Mairura suggests starting slow and opting for low-impact exercises, such as swimming and biking. Try to mix cardio (anything that gets the heart pumping) and resistance training to build up the muscles around the joints.
Be sure to consult a doctor before starting a new fitness routine, and ask them to bust the myth that exercise will aggravate your arthritis pain. The truth is it will help relieve it, and the weight loss that follows will make for longer-lasting relief.
Another myth about arthritis is that older adults are the only people who need to worry about it.
But if you’re overweight in your 20s or 30s, you will be carrying those extra pounds for decades to come, causing more wear and tear on your joints and raising the risk of developing arthritis later in life.
Nearly a quarter of overweight adults report doctor-diagnosed arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number rises to almost 1 in 3 obese patients. So it seems clear that America’s obesity epidemic is having an impact on arthritis rates.
And because arthritis is a degenerative disease, the cartilage you wear out in your youth is unlikely to grow back. That’s why the sooner you lose that weight, and relieve the added strain on your joints, the better.
“Losing even a small amount of weight can have a big effect on joint pain,” Dr. Mairura says.