Does Weight Loss Help Joint Pain and Symptoms of Arthritis?

October 15, 2019

A fat woman is doing exercise for weight loss
JayDee Huppert

Osteoarthritis, commonly referred to simply as arthritis, is caused by a gradual wearing down of the cartilage in the body’s joints.  It can happen in any joint but is more likely in joints that bear the most weight in the body, such as the low back, knees and hips.  If pain is severe enough, it can lead to a decrease in quality of life.  

Prevalence of arthritis in the U.S.

Understandably, this issue becomes more prevalent with aging after years of “wear and tear” with activity. Osteoarthritis is now the most common joint disorder in the U.S.  It is now becoming more prevalent across all age groups.  Why are people developing arthritis so early? Speculation centers around two main reasons:  a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight (two concepts that typically go hand in hand).

How weight affects our joints.

As your body weight increases, your overall health is at a greater risk for a plethora of problems.  Particularly in our joints, each extra pound of weight puts a significant amount of strain on our joints.  The cartilage that we have in our joints is meant to provide shock absorption and cushioning for everyday activities.  When joint stress becomes too much, it causes rapid degradation and dysfunction. Cartilage wear can cause joint and muscle imbalances that ultimately lead to inefficient movement and pain.

It’s never too late to lose weight.

Research shows that weight loss and exercise are both great ways to better manage arthritis symptoms.  For every pound loss, your tolerance for exercise will advance, joint balance will improve, and pain will decrease.  Don’t lose hope!  If you are feeling stuck in your weight loss and arthritis journey due to pain, consider talking to a health care professional, such as a dietician, physical therapist, and/or orthopedist to get recommendations on where to start.

Tips for weight loss

  • Start small. You can (and should) set big goals, but make sure you have a plan for taking that first step.  Setting small, achievable, actionable steps will help you maintain motivation.  You can start as simple as walking or exercising for 5 minutes during a work break, using a pedometer, doing 10 repetitions of an exercise first thing in the morning or taking the stairs.  
  • Hold yourself accountable.  Find a workout partner, tell a loved one about your weight loss goals, and write your goals down on paper.  Make sure to put them where you will see them daily.  Give these people (and yourself) permission to check in and make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Minimize a sedentary lifestyle. Sitting is not good for your general health, weight loss goals, or sore joints.  If possible, minimize your time sitting.  If you must be at a desk, you should consider investing in a standing desk, such as a Smart Workstation , or even a Desk Bike.  Exercising while watching TV, listening to music, or other simple activities is another great way to add more movement to your day.
  • Exercise.  Of course, exercise is going to play a large role in weight loss AND proper management of your arthritis pain.  This is because it promotes circulation to the affected joints.  Frustratingly, arthritis pain may be affecting your ability to participate in any exercise.  Try to choose low impact moves that are kinder to your joints such as swimming, biking, and walking. Also start a stretching program for your joints to promote circulation and flexibility.   
  • Diet.  When exercise is limited due to pain, diet will play an even larger role for losing weight.  What you eat is arguably the single most important and most easily controlled part of losing weight. However, changing eating habits takes dedication and direction so seek help if needed.  Try to aim for less processed and more whole fresh foods.  
  • Other options.  There are many other factors that play a role in your body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.  Adequate stress management and sleep are two big factors.  Consider meditation, yoga, social time, decreased screen time, and time in nature to help build better balance in your life.

Find what works for you.

There is no magical way to lose weight and reduce joint pain.  The key is to find meals, exercise, and other personal health options that you enjoy.  When you enjoy them and do them consistently, you will build habits that are easier to manage consistently on your road to recovery.  Don’t resign yourself to a life of misery due to your joint pain, with the right assistance and attention you can continue living, or return to, a high quality of life.

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