It’s possible you contemplated your joints back in pre-school, when you learned that classic song about how all of your bones are connected (“The leg bone’s connected to the hip bone…”). But after that, you probably didn’t think much about them—until the day they started to creak. And stiffen. And ache.
While taking care of your joints is important at any age, it starts to feel more pressing for people as they grow older. “Loss of function and pain in the joints is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions worldwide,” says physical therapist Leon Mao, D.P.T. “Without proper maintenance and support, these mild symptoms can escalate into more severe joint problems, such as developing osteoarthritis or even needing surgery.”
Typically, joint issues start wreaking havoc around the age of 50—and things definitely won’t improve if you ignore the issue. “Functioning joints and mobility are two of the biggest quality-of-life factors as we age,” says Andrea Paul, M.D., Medical Advisor to Illuminate Labs. “Because joint function tends to worsen over time as a consequence of the natural aging process, it’s crucial to take conscious steps to improve and preserve joint function if you want to increase your healthspan.”
Certain to-do items, such as losing weight to relieve excess pressure on your joints and strength training to build muscle that supports them, get plenty of press—but they’re not the only ways to protect your joints. Consider this list your guide to all the things you can do on a daily basis to avoid feeling like the Tin Man every time you walk, run, or jump (or, okay, get up from the couch).
1. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods
“Painful joints, whether caused by a prior injury, infection, arthritis, or certain diseases, all share one common factor: inflammation,” says dietitian Cheryl Mussatto, M.S., R.D., L.D., author of The Nourished Brain. Though often overlooked, your diet can go a long way in helping you protect your joints. “Eating more anti-inflammatory foods may help ease joint pain.”
One study published in the Mediterranean Journal of Rheumatology, for instance, suggests that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help inflammatory joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Mussatto recommends loading up on fatty fish like salmon or trout, as well as plant-based foods like walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds regularly to up your intake.
She also recommends eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, which “fight oxidative stress caused by inflammation that perpetuates joint pain.” The slew of go-to’s here: tomatoes, fruits (particularly cherries, blueberries, strawberries, and oranges), almonds, extra-virgin olive oil, and leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens.
Blueberries, in particular, are an excellent choice, according to Arika Hoscheit, R.D., a dietitian with online medical practice Paloma Health. “Blueberries are shown to relieve pain, stiffness, and difficulty walking related to osteoarthritis,” she says. “This effect is likely attributable to their high anthocyanin [an antioxidant] content, which has been shown to benefit joint tissue” she says.
2. Eat foods rich in vitamin K
Another perk of those leafy greens? “Dark green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are rich in vitamin K,” says dietitian Diana Gariglio-Clelland, R.D., nutritionist consultant for Next Luxury. Research has linked lower serum levels of vitamin K levels with joint issues, including bone spurs and damage to the meniscus (a part of the knee).
“Vitamin K works with vitamin D to increase bone density, which can help reduce the risk of fractures,” Gariglio-Clelland continues. It basically “acts a shuttle for calcium to get to the bone,” Mussatto adds. The recommended daily amount of vitamin K varies based on age and sex, with adult men requiring 120 micrograms per day and women 90.
If you can only nosh on so many greens, don’t sweat it. “Besides dark green vegetables, some other vitamin K-rich plant-based foods include prunes, avocados, and kiwis,” adds Gariglio-Clelland. You can also get some (though not as much) from pork chops, chicken, and beef liver.
3. Drink tart cherry juice
In addition to eating all those dark leafy green greens and blueberries, you can also sip on some joint-loving antioxidant goodness. You may have heard that tart cherry juice can help promote healthy sleep, but it may also be beneficial for keeping your ankles, knees, hips, elbows, wrists, and the like happy as creak-free clams. “Research suggests that daily consumption of tart cherry juice improves mobility and reduces joint pain,” shares Hoscheit. “Tart cherries may also lower c-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker, in people with arthritis. This effect is likely because cherries contain a variety of antioxidant compounds, including anthocyanins.
Though no food or juice is a cure-all, experts do seem to agree that the good-for-you qualities of tart cherry juice are encouraging for joint health: “While all fruits and vegetables are good for you, tart cherry juice is an antioxidant powerhouse that may help with joint discomfort,” Mussatto puts it.
Luckily, you don’t have to live near a cherry farm to reap the benefits and protect your joints. Dynamic Health’s Once Daily Tart Cherry Ultra 5X Juice Concentrate is a great way to conveniently get that goodness in.
4. Ditch added sugar, especially sweetened drinks
Did you really need another reason to avoid foods and beverages that contain added sugar? “People with rheumatoid arthritis tend to experience worsening symptoms when they consume sugary foods and desserts,” says Gariglio-Clelland. In fact, there’s a survey published in Arthritis Care & Research that backs this up. Why, though? “In high amounts, added sugar is inflammatory to the body,” Paul says.
Those sugary drinks, in particular, seem to have a pretty profound impact. Research published in Arthritis Care & Research found that soda worsened arthritis symptoms, while other studies have shown that people who regularly consume sugar-sweetened beverages have higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, compared to those who consume them less often.
5. Do low-impact exercise regularly
Low-impact workouts not only protect your joints but are a win for your overall health to boot. “Swimming, for example, is a great way to maintain (and even improve) joint health,” says Paul. Case in point: This study published in The Journal of Rheumatology found that swimming reduced joint pain and stiffness. “This form of cardio exercise involves far less force on the joints than running, and is a great option for older adults and those with arthritis,” she adds.
Here’s the thing: Any exercise that involves continual impact of the body’s weight against a hard surface creates a lot of force for the joints to deal with. Running, for instance, is a classic example, and puts a lot of force on the knees. “This doesn’t mean it’s a bad exercise; it just means it can be riskier for older adults and those with injuries,” Paul says. When in doubt, going low-impact is a solid bet.
Another great form of movement to explore if you’re looking to protect your joints: yoga. “When performed properly, yoga may be beneficial in preserving joint health,” Paul says. “A recent meta-analysis found that yoga improves both joint function and quality of life.” That said, he urges individuals to only take classes with licensed teachers when starting a yoga practice, since improper form can actually worsen joint problems.
6. Drop just a few pounds
You may think that only dramatic weight loss makes a difference for joint health, but that’s actually not the case. “Your knees, hips, and back support your body weight, so the more you weigh, the more work they have to do,” says Mussatto. “Studies have shown that even a small weight loss of just more than five percent of your current body weight can bring relief to weight-bearing joints.”
If you weigh 210 pounds, for example, five percent of your body weight comes out to 10.5 pounds, which would bring your total weight down to 199.5 pounds. Though it’s not an extreme loss, “it would bring relief, especially to your hips, knees, and ankle joints—and make a significant difference in how you feel,” Mussato explains.
7. Take a turmeric supplement
If you’re not already sprinkling turmeric on your oatmeal, stirring it into your lunchtime Buddha Bowl, or marinating your salmon in it for dinner every day (kudos if you are!), taking a daily turmeric supplement can be helpful if you’re looking to protect your joints.
“Adding turmeric extract (containing one gram of curcumin) has been shown to improve overall joint health,” says Mao. What’s more, two recent systematic reviews—one published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine and the other in the Journal of Medicinal Food—both also found turmeric to have promising benefits for joint health.
The magic of this long-beloved root: curcumin, the compound found in it that works as a powerful antioxidant, particularly within the joints.
One tip for supplementing: When choosing a turmeric product, seek one out that contains piperine, the active compound in black pepper, which can boost the bioavailability (absorption) of curcumin by 2,000 percent, Gariglio-Clelland notes. The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s Triple Strength Turmeric with Curcumin offers 900 milligrams of turmeric standardized to 95 percent curcumin and contains BioPerine, a form of piperine, to enhance absorption.