If only our joints would get the memo about aging gracefully. Unfortunately, according to stats from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an increasing number of Americans are encountering that achy-joint roadblock, arthritis. Technically speaking, arthritis refers to several conditions that bedevil our joints, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout–conditions that affect some 46 million American adults.
Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease that eventually destroys joint cartilage, now strikes 83 out of every 100,000 people, up from 65 per 100,000 in 1995. Osteoarthritis, a condition that wears away cartilage through wear and tear, may affect 37 million by 2030, up 10 million from today's rate. And gout, a condition resulting from elevated levels of uric acid that form painful crystals in the joints, affects more than 1 percent of U.S. adults, and has almost doubled since 1990.
Still, despite the dismal numbers, there's a lot we can do to keep our joints healthy. Here are seven simple steps you can take today.
Stretch and strengthen.
"Taking your joints through a full range of motion keeps them lubricated," says physical therapist Matthew Goodemote of Gloversville, N.Y. In fact, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that people with rheumatoid arthritis had significantly fewer tender, swollen joints after taking yoga classes for eight weeks. Tai chi can also help by teaching you how to move joints into the most efficient alignment, says athletic trainer and acupuncturist Drew Taylor, of San Diego's Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
"For every extra pound you carry, the impact on your joints is 5 pounds," says Dr. Nathan Wei, clinical director of the Arthritis and Osteoporosis Center of Maryland. Aim for a body-mass index (BMI) of 24.9 or below.
Take a dip.
"Exercising in the water takes the pressure off our joints," says Goodemote. Plus, heated pools can be particularly soothing for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Combine swimming with some type of light weight-bearing exercise like walking to increase bone strength and density.
Acupuncture–the Chinese practice of placing tiny needles in certain points on the body stimulates blood flow and lubrication of the joints and releases muscle tension, says Taylor. It can also help release muscle tension that may be compressing a joint.
Look into supplements.
Wei recommends taking glucosamine-chondroitin at the dose recommended on the package to keep joint cartilage strong. "Both are natural ingredients in our cartilage. And a number of European studies show that they do work," he says.
Keep a water bottle handy.
Whatever form of arthritis you have, aim to drink at least 64 ounces of fluids per day. This is essential for people with gout, who also have a risk for kidney stones, a risk abated by good hydration. "The disks in our spine start out like grapes, and as we get older, they shrivel to raisins," Goodemote says. "The more dehydrated the disk, the more that affects the joints because they're not getting blood flow and nutrients."
Skip the beef and beer.
Red meat, shellfish and beer contain purines, compounds that convert to uric acid, Wei says. With gout, excess uric acid creates crystals that lodge in the joints, causing inflammation and pain. In one recent study, drinking more than five beers per week doubled the risk of gout in men and increased women's risk by seven times. Focus on low-fat proteins like chicken and fish, and if you like to drink, enjoy an occasional glass of wine instead of the brew.