How the Right Exercise Can Keep Your Joints Healthy

Strive for a balance of aerobic, muscle strengthening and flexibility exercises

Women's running shoes and dumbbells for training

Contributors: Gary Calabrese, PT and Robert Molloy, MD

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Thanks to our healthy joints, we can move, run, jump, twist and turn.

Our joints are connected by ligaments and muscles for stability. They have a layer of smooth, white tissue called articular cartilage on the ends of the bones that help distribute compression forces and allow for smooth gliding when we move.

Keeping your joints healthy to reduce the wear and tear on the cartilage is a key component to having an active lifestyle and continuing to play the sports you love. Healthy joints also play an important role in preventing early-onset joint replacement surgeries —  especially hip and knee arthroplasties.

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Exercises that reduce the load on the joints while using one’s core muscles are crucial to long-lasting function and reduce the potential for early arthritis.  So it’s imperative for your joint health to continue to move and pick the right exercises.

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Variety is key

The key to a successful exercise program is variety. Completing a balance of aerobic, muscle strengthening and flexibility exercises, along with keeping a healthy weight, will provide the base for good joint health for a lifetime.

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  • Cross-training has become a popular way to add variety to your exercise routine, because you do different activities each time you work out.
  • Flexibility exercises allow us to maintain the full range of motion that joints desire. Active stretching exercises such as yoga, tai chi and pilates all help our joints stay ready for more intense exercise.
  • Stretching exercises should be performed before and after aerobic or strength training for maximum performance.
  • Aerobic or cardiovascular exercises should begin with relatively low intensity. As you age, you should avoid high-impact training such as jumping rope, step aerobics or running on hard surfaces such as city streets.
  • Low-impact exercises and sports such as bicycling, walking and swimming are ideal and can be performed with minimal equipment. Gym equipment with low-impact loads on the legs include using an elliptical, stair climber or stationary cycle.
  • Weight training keeps your muscles strong and allows for good joint stability. Performing weight training with proper form is critical, as is starting with low loads and higher repetitions for joint safety. Before starting a weight training program, you should seek the advice of a trained professional such as a physical therapist or exercise physiologist to develop the optimal program.

Above all, you should pick exercises and activities that you enjoy and  that meet the low joint load described above.

More information
Guide to sports health

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.