You wake up from a deep sleep with a groan. Getting out of bed is a procedure for you these days. Your back aches. Your knees ache. All of your muscles ache. You think back wistfully to the age where you were able to just leap out of bed and get your whole morning routine done in under fifteen minutes. Maybe ten if you were rushing and left some things out. But now, it feels like it takes ten minutes to just get out of bed–and not because you’re tired.
Maybe you’ve heard before that a great way to relieve muscle pain is–counter intuitively–to exercise. It stretches and works out muscles and joints that don’t get used much in that manner any more. But with all the aging you’re going through, you can hardly imagine lifting weights–much less dropping down and giving someone fifty.
But fear not! Exercise is possible at any age, and it doesn’t have to build major muscle to feel the benefits. As we age, the cartilage in our joints begins to soften and become more susceptible to degradation; a process which can eventually lead to arthritis. The key to reducing this degradation process is nourishment. Cartilage however is quite different from many of the tissues or muscle in our body in that the nourishment comes from the synovial fluid in the joint rather than its blood supply. Similar to how a fish must continue to move through the water to breathe, our cartilage is provided the adequate oxygen and nutrients it needs through the active movement of the synovial fluid within the joint. Low impact exercise focused on active mobility of the joint allows for this fluid to adequately nourish the cartilage and stall the degenerative process.
To start with, no matter your age, even something as simple as adding a half an hour of brisk walking to your daily routine is beneficial. Walking–and especially brisk walking–keeps up your heart rate, which in turn helps you to move more smoothly and easily. It can also keep your joints flexible, strengthen your bones, and prevent osteoarthritis and osteoporosis because your muscles will be that much stronger.
Water aerobics is another popular form of exercise for seniors–and for good reason. For those who are already experiencing the onset of arthritis or even simply feeling the aches of getting older, the buoyancy of water is like a cushion for the joints, making the movements less strenuous. The softening of the cartilage becomes more susceptible to injury with high impact exercise. Low impact exercises such as cycling or aquatic therapy is an excellent way to reduce the risk of injury to the cartilage and maintain joint health. At the same time, the water provides enough resistance to help you build strength. Anyone who has a hard time opening a tightly closed jar will appreciate that. Combining low impact exercise with muscle strengthening is the recipe as we age for maintaining healthy joints and cartilage.
While they might sound strange and new age-y to those unfamiliar with them, yoga and tai-chi are both types of exercises that are known to relieve stress and improve flexibility and coordination. Based on a series of fluid movements, people who practice both find that they also help bring a greater sense of calm and relaxation. This is important for anyone who’s just spent the day chasing after grandkids.
But beyond all of the physical benefits of low-impact exercise, there is the emotional aspect too. As someone with limited mobility who may be living alone, it can be hard to find companionship. Long periods of time spent alone are known to have a negative impact on your mental health. Getting out a couple of times a week to an exercise class geared for your age group provides an important opportunity for socialization. It will also add routine and break up what may seem like endless days.
It is always wise to check in with your medical team before adding any new exercise to your routine. Every person is different, and your care providers will know if something is right for you.
Dr. Matthew Russo
Dr. Russo is a third-generation orthopedic surgeon in Scottsdale, AZ specializing in total hip and knee replacement surgery. He feels very grateful to have the opportunity to serve the Phoenix community as an orthopedic surgeon, just as his father and grandfather have done, for over 30 years.