Joint pain and ageing | Living with joint pain as you get older

As we age, our muscle mass starts to shrink. This can put extra pressure on our joints and increase our risk of joint pain and conditions like arthritis. Thankfully, painful joints are avoidable no matter what age you are. Clinical Fitness Regional Lead Abby Maclean has all the information and exercises you need to lessen the strain on your joints as you age.

How does age impact joint pain?

Our joints get stiffer and less flexible over time because the amount of lubricating fluid inside your joints decreases. The cartilage also becomes thinner and ligaments tend to shorten and lose some of their flexibility.

Degenerative joint diseases like osteoarthritis further contribute to joint pain as these conditions are more prevalent in older adults. This is because the tissue that cushions the ends of our bones within the joints starts to break down over time due to repetitive movement.

These conditions typically develop over many years and worsen gradually, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling.

What can make age-related joint pain worse?

Exercises for older adults

The most effective exercise for elderly people with joint pain is anything that’s low impact and promotes mobility.

As we age, it’s important that we focus on activities that are gentle on the joints. We may have to abandon high-impact sports and heavy weightlifting if joint pain persists into old age. This can be hard, especially if you’ve been an avid exerciser all your life. If this sounds like you, try shifting your focus away from performance and onto longevity.

Prioritise flexibility and functional strength that keeps us mobile. Some great exercises that are well-tolerated by seniors with joint pain include Nordic walking, swimming, water aerobics, stationary gym bikes and cross-trainers, tai-chi, and yoga.

Some of our favourites

At Nuffield Health, we’ve got loads of super accessible workouts that you can follow along with at home.

Flexibility and mobility for beginners

If you’re after something a little slower, we’ve got you covered. Again, only perform the exercises that you’re comfortable with, and focus on quality not quantity.

Yoga for beginners with Michaela

Yoga is a great low-impact exercise for seniors. It promotes flexibility, mobility, and has an entry point for everyone. Follow along with Michaela as she covers some of our favourite beginner poses.

An introduction to cardio and strength training

If you can’t perform all the exercises, don’t worry. Move at a pace that works for you and only perform exercises that you are comfortable with.

Other changes you can make as you get older

In addition to adjusting and adopting a new exercise regime, it’s important we look at how our behaviours and lifestyle can impact the health of our joints.

Maintaining a healthy body weight can significantly reduce the strain on our joints, particularly in weight-bearing areas like the knees and hips.

Mindful movement and posture are also essential, as proper body mechanics can help take the strain off your joints. If you’ve suffered in silence with a bad back or dodgy knee for years, it’s time to get checked out.  

If you’re a smoker or you regularly consume alcohol, quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption can promote joint health, as these habits can contribute to inflammation and cartilage damage.

Advice for young and middle-aged adults

When we’re young, it can be hard to imagine a future where we suffer with joint pain, stiffness and mobility issues. It’s essential we anticipate and treat problems early to avoid the need for serious treatment in old age.

If you’re middle aged and wondering what you can do to limit joint problems further down the line, look no further.

  • Light to moderate exercise: exercise releases endorphins that reduce stress levels and prevent joint pain from occurring
  • Adjust over time: adapt your workouts to incorporate a blend of cardio, strength, stability and mobility training
  • Low-impact movements: swimming and yoga are great low-impact exercises to take up in your fifties
  • Keep moving: staying active into old age is linked with a decreased risk of joint pain issues
  • Strengthen your muscles: sarcopenia and gradual muscle loss as we age can put additional strain and pressure on our joints
  • Take care of your mental health: stress can trigger joint pain, so stay positive and take care of yourself mentally

Arthritis and why it’s so common

50% of adults over the age of 65 have been diagnosed with arthritis.

Arthritis is a medical condition that causes inflammation and stiffness in the joints. The two most common types of arthritis in older adults are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Older people are more affected by arthritis because of the cumulative wear and tear that the joints go through over time. The body's natural ability to repair damaged joint tissue diminishes with age, making it harder to rectify damage and heal affected areas.

Why is sarcopenia relevant?

Sarcopenia is the medical name for the involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass as we get older.

As we age, it’s normal to expect a general decline in strength and functional muscle capacity. Research shows there is a strong link between sarcopenia and conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

This is because when a muscle decreases in size, our joints are tasked with taking the strain. So what can we do about sarcopenia? The best way to minimise muscle loss over time is to maintain a regular exercise routine.

There is no cure or magic supplement to prevent sarcopenia, but progressive resistance-based training and maintaining a routine of lifting weights can help you maintain muscle mass into old age.

Can sarcopenia be reversed?

Research suggests that you can reverse muscle loss using diet and exercise, regardless of your age. Behavioural factors may make this harder, but there is nothing stopping you from maintaining and building muscle in old age.

Are genetics a factor?

Genetics can make some people more susceptible to age-related joint pain. Our DNA can influence the structure, strength and integrity of our joints and can affect how our bodies respond to inflammation.

If joint pain runs in your family, it may be because of a hereditary gene. A lifestyle factor may also be the reason in the form of harmful behavioural tendencies we’ve inherited from our parents and older family members.

Can our mental health affect joint pain?

There is an overlap with mental health and joint pain.

Whilst poor mental health cannot cause joint pain, it’s not a myth that we perceive pain differently when we aren’t feeling right mentally.

In addition, we are less likely to engage in positive activities that can ease our pain if we’re feeling down. Exercise is less appealing and we’re not as likely to spend time with others.

Are diet and joint pain linked?

The older we get, the harder it can be to maintain a regular exercise regime. This can lead to weight gain which further reduces our motivation to exercise.

Having a well-balanced diet means the food you eat contains all the right nutrients your body needs to help protect your joints from damage.

What foods should I eat more of?

If you’re looking to adapt your diet to improve joint health, consider prioritising omega 3 rich foods. These include salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring. If you don’t eat meat or fish, nuts and seeds are a great natural source of omega 3.

The link between calcium deficiencies and joint pain is well explored. Calcium is important for promoting bone health and density. If you think you’re deficient, try drinking more milk and eating more broccoli and yoghurt.

Lastly, upping your protein intake can help you maintain the muscle mass required to take the strain off your joints. Foods to prioritise include tofu, eggs, red meat, nuts and seeds, and chicken.

When to see a professional

Whether you’re in pain or not, regular health checks are important.

Seeing your GP or a physiotherapist a few times a year will give you a valuable insight into your own health and wellbeing. They’ll also be able to help you spot the early signs of anything problematic.

A professional can also give you an early diagnosis and provide a tailored plan for you to treat and manage your condition. The earlier we start exercises to combat joint pain, the less likely we are to avoid surgery and serious treatment further down the road.

Our free treatment programme

In 2018, we set up a programme to help people manage and treat their joint pain. Since then, we’ve helped over 20,000 people live a happier and healthy life.

The 6-month programme includes access to expert lifestyle advice and exercise sessions with a rehabilitation specialist. You’ll receive a health check at the beginning, part way through, and at the end of the programme to show your progress and keep you motivated to move forward.

Last updated Thursday 26 October 2023

First published on Thursday 26 October 2023