Arthritis affects nearly a quarter of the adult population in the US. According to the CDC, more than 54 million Americans aged 18 and over have been diagnosed by doctors as having arthritis. A recent study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology that examines more than 33,000 health records concludes that it is even more common than the CDC estimates indicate, especially among adults aged 18-65. The results indicate that some 91.2 million adults were affected by arthritis in the US, including 61.1 million adults between age 18 and 64.
Adults with doctor-diagnosed arthritis are more likely to be obese, have diabetes, and/or heart disease than adults who do not have arthritis. Further, arthritis limits the daily activities of almost 24 million adults.
While we usually think of arthritis in our hips, knees, shoulders, hands and feet, it can also affect the vertebrae in the neck. In addition to medical treatment, some lifestyle changes may help improve symptoms. Correcting posture, especially when sitting for hours at a computer, changing your sleeping position, cutting down on screen time on your phone, stretching, and getting out for a walk or some other low-impact activity can help lubricate your joints.
Of course, it's important to discuss any arthritis symptoms and changes in your condition with your primary care doctor. They can advise you about what medical intervention is right for you and can give you parameters about how much and what kinds of exercise will give you the most benefit. If you are overweight or obese, then a weight-loss program including exercise and a healthy diet focused on anti-inflammatory foods will certainly help improve your arthritis symptoms.
Weight Loss Benefits for Arthritis
Not surprisingly, among the primary suggestions for easing arthritis pain is losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy weight – which also lowers the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Here are some ways reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can help with osteoarthritis.
- Reduce Pressure On Your Joints. A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism of overweight and obese adults with knee OA found that losing one pound of weight resulted in four pounds of pressure being removed from the knees. In other words, losing just 10 pounds would relieve 40 pounds of pressure from your knees.
- Ease Pain. Losing weight eases arthritis pain. Losing 10–20 percent of starting bodyweight improved pain, function, and quality of life better than losing just five percent of bodyweight.
- Reduce Inflammation. Fat itself is an active tissue that creates and releases pro-inflammatory chemicals. Inflammation can amplify and aggravate autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus and their associated comorbidities (like heart disease). By reducing fat stores in the body, your body’s overall inflammation will go down.
- Reduce Disease Activity. Losing weight can reduce the overall severity of your arthritis.
- Improve Chance of Remission. Several studies have shown that being obese reduces your chance of achieving minimal disease activity or remission if you have RA or PsA.
- Lower Uric Acid Levels and Chance of Gout Attack. Overall, people who lost weight had lower serum uric acid levels and fewer gout attacks.
- Slows Cartilage Degeneration in OA. A study of MRIs of osteoarthritic knees in overweight or obese people indicates that those who lost weight over 4 years showed significantly lower cartilage deterioration. The more weight lost, the lower the rate of disease progression.
Exercising, including simply getting out and walking, is good for reducing pain. Movement helps mitigate the pain and damage of osteoarthritis in a number of ways. "Movement is essential for nutrition of the cartilage," says Dr. Virginia Byers Kraus, a professor at Duke University's Molecular Physiology Institute who serves on the research and medical committees of the Arthritis Foundation. It builds up surrounding muscles and helps stabilize the hurting joint and also increases lubrication of the cartilage.
Neuroscientist Benedict Kolber with Duquesne University in Pittsburgh says exercise may also cause changes in the brain that can make a big difference in damping down pain. "Exercise engages the endogenous opioid system," he says, "so our bodies make opioids and use these opioids to decrease pain." And finally, Kolber says, exercise also seems to decrease stress. And stress can make people more sensitive to pain.
In an article for the Arthritis Foundation, Amy Paturel describes The Ultimate Arthritis Diet, which discusses the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet for improving joint symptoms. Studies confirm that eating foods commonly part of the Mediterranean diet can lower blood pressure; protect against chronic conditions, ranging from cancer to stroke; help arthritis by curbing inflammation; benefit both joints and heart; and lead to weight loss, which can lessen joint pain. Key foods and food groups include:
Fish - Three to four ounces of fish, twice a week. Arthritis experts claim more is better. Sources: Salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, anchovies, scallops and other cold-water fish. Other foods that contain omega-e fatty acids are ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and soy (found in tofu and edamame).
Nuts & Seeds – 1.5 ounces of nuts daily (one ounce is about a handful). More good news: Nuts are jam-packed with inflammation-fighting monounsaturated fat. Sources: Walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and almonds.
Fruits & Veggies - 9 or more servings daily (1 serving = 1 cup of veggies or fruit or 1 cups of raw leafy greens). Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. Sources: Colorful fruits and veggies – the darker or more brilliant the color, the more antioxidants it has. Good ones include berries, cherries, cabbage, spinach, kale, broccoli, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 2-3 tablespoons daily. There is a fatty acid found in olive oil (oleocanthal) that may inhibit inflammatory compounds in the body. Sources: Extra virgin olive oil, but other healthy choices include avocado, safflower, and walnut oils.
Beans - 1 cup, two+ times per week. Beans are loaded with fiber and phytonutrients in addition to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Sources: Small red beans, red kidney beans and pinto beans.
Whole Grains - 6 ounces of grains per day (1 ounce of whole grain = ½ cup cooked brown rice or one slice of whole-wheat bread). Whole grains contain lots of fiber. Sources: foods made with the entire grain kernel (e.g., whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, bulgur, brown rice and quinoa).
Nightshade Vegetables - Eggplant, tomatoes, red bell peppers and potatoes. However - they contain solanine, a chemical that has been accused of triggering arthritis pain. If your arthritis pain flares after eating them, consider cutting all nightshade vegetables from your diet for a month. Then slowly add them back into your diet to see if symptoms worsen or stay the same.
Garlic and onions contain a compound that may improve symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Foods that may exacerbate symptoms
Many of the foods to avoid if you have osteoarthritis are not surprising, as they are bad for everyone (e.g., sugar and refined carbohydrates). Some foods may cause inflammation and may make arthritis worse, including added sugar (it’s everywhere, so read the labels – juices, cereals, yoghurt), saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates (white rice, white bread and food made with white flour), monosodium glutamate may trigger chronic inflammation, and alcohol.
Watch your food intake and get some exercise – start slowly and get the input of a physician.
2 Jafarzadeh, S. Reza and Felson, David T. (February 2018) Updated Estimates Suggest a Much Higher Prevalence of Arthritis in United States Adults than Previous Ones. ARTHRITIS & RHEUMATOLOGY. Vol. 70, No. 2, pp 185–192.