The #1 Unexpected Lifestyle Habit That Helps With Managing Arthritis

A full one-third of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 are affected by arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis (which broadly refers to inflammation of the joints) comes in many forms, but in all cases can be both painful and debilitating. Often, people with arthritis experience joint pain, swelling and stiffness—symptoms that can all interfere with daily living.

If you’re experiencing any pain in your joints, it’s important to see a healthcare provider to come up with a treatment plan. This can include prescription medication and, for some, surgery. But there are also lifestyle habits that can help with managing arthritis in a major way—including one that many people don’t realize can make a significant difference.

Related: The 20 Best Foods to Reduce Inflammation and Ease Arthritis Pain

What Causes Arthritis?

Before jumping into how to manage arthritis, it’s helpful to know what causes it in the first place. Dr. Iginio Stoppa, ND, a naturopathic doctor who practices primary care medicine focused on chronic conditions and pain management, explains that osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) is considered a “wear and tear disease,” meaning the more joints are used, the more degraded they become.

He says that it’s natural for our joints to experience some wear and tear as we age. “In fact, if your doctor were to take an x-ray of your [lower] back, hips or shoulders, it is likely they would find some evidence of osteoarthritis,” he says. “When that damage becomes significant, it can cause symptoms such as joint pain and limited mobility.” However, he adds that there are other factors that come into play too. For example, scientific studies show a connection between body weight and arthritis. This is because the more body weight there is, the more weight is placed on the joints.

Related: The Is the #1 Worst Habit for Arthritis Pain, According to a Rheumatologist 

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, the cause stems from an immune response in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy cells.

There is a greater risk of developing both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis if you are deficient in vitamin D. One more reason to make sure you’re eating fish regularly or taking a supplement if you are vegan!

Related: The #1 Early Sign of Arthritis Most People Miss, According to a Rheumatologist 

The Number One Lifestyle Habit That Can Help With Managing Arthritis

When patients ask Dr. Stoppa for tips on managing their arthritis, there’s one big piece of advice he recommends that many people find surprising: get moving. “Movement is medicine for your joints,” he explains. “You can have too little movement or too much. Since the post-industrial era, it seems we have too little movement.”

Considering the fact that osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear, the idea that more movement can help can seem like a contradiction. “​​Frequently in medicine, we come across contradicting information: osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear of your joints, but it can also be prevented or [managed] by using your joints,” Dr. Stoppa says. “Like everything in life, balance can make or break you. It is helpful to have a healthy amount of movement but too much, like running a marathon every month, can send you to an orthopedic specialist.”

Scientific research does show a connection between movement and improved joint health. One scientific article states that activities that require flexibility, muscle strength and coordination help with joint function (including joints that have been affected by arthritis). And a scientific study found that engaging in 30 minutes of exercise four times a week was shown to significantly reduce joint tenderness and improve range of motion.

You know the old saying, use it or lose it? Dr. Stoppa says this is exactly why movement helps with joint health. “Force is the language of your musculoskeletal system and when you do not move your joints, it is like you are losing communication with them,” he explains. “Without communication, the tissues of your joints become thin and weaker than they should. They become unable to bear the load that your body requires them to bear when doing activities.”

Okay, so movement can help with managing arthritis. But what type of movement is best? According to scientific studies, there are several different options to consider. Strengthening exercises, aerobic exercise (including water aerobics), tai chi and yoga have all been found to help with arthritis.

If your joint pain is intense, you may not want to move at all. If this is the case, Dr. Stoppa says that movement is still important, but it needs to be more gentle and less intense. “Gentle movement of your joints helps move inflammation and nudge the body into recovery,” he says. Water aerobics and tai chi are especially known for being gentle on joints.

It bears repeating that it’s important to work with a healthcare provider if you have any joint pain. In addition to helping you figure out which types of movement are the best fit for you, they can integrate other forms of treatment, such as medication, to help with your arthritis management. Although there is no cure for arthritis, it can be managed so that pain isn’t interfering with your daily life. See your doctor and get moving!

Next up, see which foods you should avoid if you have arthritis because they can make symptoms worse.