Taking care of your joints can have a major affect on your mobility and quality of life as you age. But certain habits could unintentionally hamper your joint health.
Here, experts share 12 common mistakes that might be messing with your joints, plus tips to give them the TLC they deserve.
Mistake 1: Getting Too Much Caffeine
If your daily java habit is extreme, it might be doing damage to your joints. “Excessive caffeine can limit the growth of cartilage and bone,” says Leslie Langevin, RD, author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook and co-owner of Whole Health Nutrition.
However, moderate coffee intake may actually support joint health. “Most studies agree that keeping caffeine intake to less than 400 mg per day (about 2 cups of coffee or less) can be helpful in keeping joints healthy,” Langevin says.
Fix it: Stick to one or two cups of joe per day. If you need to wean off caffeine a bit, consider switching your extra cups to decaf. “Coffee itself is filled with polyphenols and can help reduce inflammation, so decaffeinated coffee might be a good swap to help with joints,” Langevin says.
Mistake 2: Wearing High Heels Often
What you put on your feet can affect how the rest of your body feels and functions. This is especially true if you’re sporting stilettos all the time.
“Research has found that there are increased forces applied across the knee joint when people wear high heels compared to walking barefoot,” says Alexis Morgan Coslick, DO, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
In fact, stress on the joints occurs in heels as low as 1.5 inches, she says.
Fix it: If possible, avoid wearing high heels often or for long periods of time because the increased stress they cause at the knee may lead to degenerative changes in the joints, Dr. Coslick says. Instead, opt for flats with plenty of support.
Mistake 3: Not Drinking Enough Water
“Water is important for creating synovial fluid in the joint, which helps lubricate the joint and increase growth of new cells in cartilage,” Langevin says.
So, when you don’t drink enough, you reduce this lubrication, which may lead to joint inflammation, stiffer movements or even pain, she adds.
Fix it: Sip H2O throughout the day to keep your joints lubed up and limber. How much water do you need? The general recommendation is to drink half your body weight in ounces each day.
Mistake 4: Skipping Warm-Ups
When you do a warm-up before a workout, you’re effectively preparing your muscles and joints for what’s to come by practicing movement patterns in slower, controlled tempos, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This also helps your nervous system regulate how much range of motion is safe for each individual joint.
That’s why consistently skipping warm-ups puts your joints at risk for injury.
Fix it: Always do a 5-minute dynamic warm-up before exercising. And try to tailor your warm-up strategy to your particular workout, Dr. Coslick says.
For example, if you plan to do explosive movements in your sweat session, your warm-up should include a progression toward increased speed and power that mimics the activities you will perform later on, she says.
Mistake 5: Shunning Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies are ample in anti-inflammatory nutrients. “Each deeply colored vegetable or fruit provides a great source to help reduce inflammation in our bodies, including our joints,” Langevin says. So, skimping on them can hinder your joint health.
Fix it: Pile your plate with produce, and eat the rainbow. Cherries, specifically tart cherry juice, have been shown to reduce symptoms of gout and arthritis, while dark leafy greens like kale and bok choy are rich in vitamins K, A, C and anti-inflammatory antioxidants, Langevin says.
Mistake 6: Not Getting Enough Calcium
Your mom probably told you to drink your milk for strong bones. And for good reason: Dairy foods contain calcium, which is essential for healthy bones and joints.
Getting enough calcium is important for preventing osteoporosis, a deficiency of bone quantity and quality that ups your risk for fractures and disability, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Fix it: How much calcium you need depends on your age and sex. But for most middle-aged adults, the daily recommended amount is 1,000 mg, according to the National Institutes of Health.
You can easily hit this target by eating calcium-rich foods like dairy (think: yogurt, cottage cheese), calcium-fortified plant milks, leafy greens and nuts, Langevin says.
But note: Calcium supplements have not been proven to help improve joint health or decrease pain or arthritis, she adds.
Mistake 7: Always Doing High-Impact Exercises
While high-impact weight-bearing activity can help prevent osteoporosis, it might also hurt joint health if you do it excessively, Dr. Coslick says.
Indeed, a May 2017 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that professional competitive runners were more likely to have degenerative joints than recreational runners. The researchers concluded that prolonged exposure to a high-volume and/or high-intensity activity like running is linked to an increased risk for hip and/or knee osteoarthritis.
Similarly, a January 2021 study in Skeletal Radiology found that doing high-impact exercises like running and racquet sports was linked with greater joint degeneration in people with overweight and obesity. (Having overweight is risky for joint health, and adding high-impact exercise compounds the danger.)
Likewise, having underweight can also affect your joint health. People with underweight have higher odds of developing osteoporosis later in life, according to the Office on Women’s Health. Because this condition can weaken your bones and make them more susceptible to breaking, performing too many high-impact activities can put stress on the joints and be potentially harmful.
Fix it: Balance your weekly workout routine by incorporating a variety of high-impact and low-impact sessions, Dr. Coslick says. The same study in Skeletal Radiology noted that low-impact activities like elliptical training seemed to be easier on joints. Other low-impact exercises include swimming, biking, hiking and dancing.
Mistake 8: Not Getting Enough Vitamin C
Vitamin C is necessary to create collagen, which helps build cartilage in the joints; plus, it helps reduce joint inflammation, Langevin says.
Vitamin C has also been shown to decrease (and even help prevent) symptoms of osteoarthritis, she adds.
Fix it: The recommended daily amount of vitamin C for people assigned male at birth is 90 mg and 75 mg for those assigned female at birth, according to the National Institutes of Health.
You can reach your daily quota by packing your plate with fruits and vegetables. Berries, citrus fruit and red peppers are rich sources of vitamin C and other powerful antioxidants, Langevin says.
Mistake 9: Using Incorrect Form When Lifting
“Weight training (and lifting objects in general) can increase stress placed on joints,” Dr. Coslick says. And if the load is too heavy or a person uses improper form, this only increases the stress, which may result in an acute injury or progress to chronic pain, she says.
Fix it: Always prioritize proper form. “With the initiation of an exercise program, it is essential to focus on form and good neuromuscular control,” Dr. Coslick says. Only once you’ve mastered technique should you gradually increase weight, repetitions or sets, she says.
“The same general principals should be applied for lifting heavy household items,” she adds. Never attempt to lift something heavier than you can manage. When in doubt, ask for a helping hand.
Mistake 10: Forgoing Healthy Fats
While it’s a smart strategy to limit saturated fats, which can aggravate arthritis inflammation, cutting all fats from your diet can be detrimental to your joints.
Case in point: Eating omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce joint pain and inflammation from arthritis, Langevin says.
In addition, olive oil — which contains monounsaturated fat — is known to improve inflammation in joints thanks to its antioxidant oleocanthal, Langevin says. Cold-pressed olive oil contains higher concentrations of oleocanthal, she adds.
Fix it: Incorporate healthy fats into your everyday eating plan. To keep your joints healthy, make sure you eat fatty fish like salmon twice per week and add other omega-3-rich foods like walnuts, chia and flaxseeds to your meals daily, Langevin says.
Mistake 11: Sitting or Standing for Long Periods
Poor posture when sitting can increase the load placed on the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, which could result in joint and low back pain, Dr. Coslick says.
The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy study noted above found that a more sedentary lifestyle is linked with a higher risk of hip and/or knee osteoarthritis.
But standing for too long can lead to joint problems as well. Excessive standing causes the joints in the spine, hips, knees and feet to become stiff and compromises mobility, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Over time, this can result in degenerative damage to the tendons and ligaments.
Fix it: When sitting, “it’s important to maintain a comfortable, ergonomically correct posture to minimize spine pain,” Dr. Coslick says. She recommends taking frequent breaks to go for a quick walk or to do a short stretching or exercise program.
Likewise, if you need to stand most of the day, build in sitting and stretching breaks. Wearing comfortable shoes with sufficient arch support and shock absorption can also reduce the strain on your body during prolonged periods of standing, per CCOHS.
Mistake 12: Eating Too Many Processed Foods
Highly processed foods are pro-inflammatory. From processed meats to sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates and fried foods, the list of foods that can trigger inflammation in the body — and harm your joint health — is long, Dr. Coslick says.
Fix it: Eat foods that have inflammatory properties in moderation, and try following the Mediterranean diet, which prioritizes anti-inflammatory fare like leafy greens, berries, nuts, fish and olive oil, Dr. Coslick says.
Langevin agrees, citing research that the Mediterranean diet can improve joint health and reduce inflammation and pain from arthritis.