In the race against time’s effects on our joints, doctors prescribe two things: exercise and weight management. Luckily, they go hand-in-hand.

Exercise not only helps promote weight loss and weight maintenance, but it also helps move nutrients to the joints, says Dr. Michael T. Archdeacon, chairman of UC Health’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. 

Physical movement is what gets nutrients to cartilage, he explains. Cartilage, the connective tissue that covers bones and helps them move smoothly, is avascular, meaning it doesn’t have blood vessels. So, it takes exercise and joint movement to transport nutrients through synovial fluid that lubricates joints.

As weight decreases to a proper range, so does the stress on joints, especially the weight-bearing knees and hips. Biomechanic studies show the loads that joints have to bear doing certain daily activities like getting out of a chair or climbing stairs.

While walking on a level surface puts the stress of our body weight on our knees, going up stairs multiplies that stress, adding three to four times our body weight on our knees, says Dr. Arthur Lee, orthopedic surgeon with Wellington Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine, a partner of Mercy Health and TriHealth. 

The slow evolution of weight gain can make it hard to feel how joints are being stressed. But picking up a 50-pound bag of concrete is one way of feeling the weight of 50 extra pounds on our joints, Dr. Lee says, adding that a body mass index (BMI) provides a good guideline for determining in which weight range people fall and which range is best for them. 

With age, cartilage can wear out, resulting in arthritis, which is the painful inflammation of joints. Carrying extra weight may speed up that wear and tear. Arthritis tends to develop more commonly in the hips, knees and shoulders, less prevalently in the ankles, elbows and spine, Dr. Archdeacon says. Symptoms include swelling, ache and stiffness around the affected joints.

“You really can’t stop arthritis,” he says, adding that it also can result from a post-traumatic injury, like multiple sprains or breaks. 

Typically, arthritis sufferers’ days have a predictable pattern: stiffness upon rising, feeling better with some movement to warm up, then progressively feeling worse as the day wears on. 

Typical treatment options for joint troubles include daily exercise like swimming, cycling, or using a treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical machines, or walking, which benefits the joints, heart and lungs. These exercise also lower impact on the joints. If needed, a doctor may prescribe weight loss, perhaps a formal physical therapy regimen, a brace, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as Advil, Ibuprofen and Aleve, says Dr. Archdeacon.

These non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) relieve pain and reduce inflammation. And over time, if over-the-counter strength relievers become less effective, doctors may switch to prescription-strength medications or steroidal injections into the joint to calm the inflammation. 

Finally, an MRI and surgery or joint replacement may be warranted if the discomfort has become debilitating. 

“One out of five adults will end up with a knee replacement,” says Dr. Archdeacon. “It’s a quality of life issue.”

In any case, anyone with joint trouble, including pain, instability or mechanical symptoms like grinding, clicking, popping or catching, is encouraged to have it checked out by their doctor or orthopedist. A physician should also screen for other causes of arthritis if someone is experiencing multiple-point joint pain, Dr. Lee says. 

There are no supplements to preserve joints, but calcium is often recommended to boost bone health, says Dr. Archdeacon. He advises men and women over 50 years old take a once-daily vitamin with calcium. 

Patients might ask their doctors’ opinions about the benefit of taking glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate as dietary supplements. Still, the best medicine doctors can prescribe is to get moving.

“The key is exercise and watching weight,” Dr. Lee says.

And it doesn’t really matter what type of exercise patients choose.

“Anything that causes movement is good,” Dr. Archdeacon adds.