Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses why having strong joint mobility is so important to your long-term overall health.
I have written on this topic before, but I feel it is worth an entire article to really hammer home the importance of this health topic. I feel blessed because I believe I am in a unique position to inform people of the best ways to live physically healthy lives. Nothing becomes more important to a person’s health than the health of your joints. If you lack joint ROM (range-of-motion), it makes all of life’s activities difficult or impossible. Most exercise becomes almost a non-option for the severely joint-restricted individual, and constant pain becomes your unwelcome friend.
Joint replacement surgeries are soaring. Much of this has to do with the baby boomer generation getting older. “The number of total knee replacements performed in the U.S. will leap by 673 percent — reaching 3.48 million — by the year 2030,” according to a new study presented at the 73rd annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery in Chicago. Likewise, “hip replacements will increase by 174 percent to 572,000 by 2030.” For a person who has reached this level of joint deterioration, obviously, this is a great option to have total joint replacement than to live life in agony and restriction. What I am suggesting, however, is that most of the time a person does not need to ever be in a situation where replacing a joint is the only option.
I now have living proof this is true. Two older members of my family are brothers. They are only two years apart in age, both in their mid-60’s. One of them noticed about 10 years ago that he wasn’t feeling good physically and that his body was achy and tired. He took action, did some research, and for the last decade he has been actively involved in yoga classes twice a week. I recently put him through a joint mobility prescription I typically use with clients, and he performed the exercises with ease. He has the mobility and joint health of someone much younger than he is. The other brother noticed his body tightening about 10 years ago as well, but chose non-action. The last 10 years he has become osteoarthritic in his hips, knees, and lumber spine and needs total joint replacement in both of his hips and knees over the next five years. Both men with the same genetics, and same timeframe, ending up with completely opposite health. The choice of healthy joints is yours, people.
What I hope for the reader to understand today is that just because you are aging does not mean your body should just break down at some point. Joint pain, joint restriction, and joint deterioration are not a result of aging – they are a result of losing joint ROM by choice as you are aging! By your awareness of your body, you get to decide if you want to live with pain-free joints or with stiff, achy, restricted joints. It all depends on 1) your belief that you can restore and maintain joint ROM and 2) your adherence to a proper joint mobility exercise routine that you use every single day of your life for 10-20 minutes.
A quick side-note, joint mobility and muscle flexibility training are not the same thing. When doing mobility drills, you generally will not feel a deep stretch, which is fine. This is because a muscle does not always have to be stretched to put a joint through its full range of motion. Muscle stretching is beneficial (overdone, but beneficial), but muscle stretching will not deliver well-oiled, pain-free joints. Your hinges need a distinctly different type of workout from your muscles.
While every single person, regardless of age, should be able to perform daily joint mobility maintenance on himself/herself, this article is written for the older population who have already found themselves in a good amount of joint pain and restriction. There are differing degrees of joint mobility and pain, but I have found there are basically three stages of joint health.
First is a 100 percent healthy joint, where superb joint ROM is easily achieved. Most people are not at this stage. The second stage usually hits by the time you are 40 or so. The joints already have salt deposits and they speak up with aches and limited ROM. Not all the time though. Sometimes symptoms disappear for years only to resurface again. The third stage is when the joint aches almost constantly and actively interferes with your work and life. X-rays show changes, the most common being bone spurs growing between your vertebrae. Bad posture, poor body mechanics at work and in the gym, and lack of joint movement are to blame.
Unfortunately, from the individuals I have trained and assessed, I have found that most people above 40 or 45 years of age are at stage three or close to it. But the good news is that the body will heal! The only way to prevent age related joint problems is through exercise, specifically joint mobility exercise. The only way to bring a body back from stage three (joint restriction affecting quality of life and movement) is through daily persistence of joint mobility training that takes 10-20 minutes of total daily time.
So what are these joint mobility exercises? The best I can do is recommend some sources for you. The best book I have come across on this topic is called “Super Joints” by Pavel Tsatsouline. This book will teach you how to do these crucial drills for your joints, and it is not very expensive at all. The second option would be to hire a trainer who specializes in human movement. The third option is to take a yoga class, however, for individuals who are at the end of stage two or in stage three already, this is definitely not the safest option, as yoga classes will most likely put you in a compromised position if you already have joint restrictions (meaning injury might ensue).
The Takeaway: Whatever you choose to do, remember, joint health is a choice. All human beings should be able to perform daily exercise for their joints to encourage a full ROM without experiencing pain, stimulating blood flow to the joint, and lubricating the joint to prevent calcification and stiffness. All it takes is some knowledge, persistence, and 10-20 minutes of daily joint maintenance work.
Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com.