As we get older, the wear and tear on our joints is compounded daily, leading to injury, pain, and even osteoarthritis. What can we do to strengthen our joints so that they can stay as strong and pain-free as possible? From a lifestyle point of view, it is crucial to keep moving. Joints that remain static will lose mobility and freeze up over time; this increases our chance of getting injured. It is also important that an exercise program be properly balanced. There should be a focus on strengthening opposing muscle groups equally, in order to prevent imbalances that lead to eventual strain. We will take a look at three major joints in the body—the shoulder, hip, and knee—and with one or two simple exercises for each, take the first step toward healthier joints.
Made up of the scapula, clavicle, and humerus bones, the shoulder joint has the largest range of motion of any joint in the body. A small group of deep muscles, called the “rotator cuff,” is largely responsible for its structural integrity and stability. While many fitness programs emphasize the major muscles of the upper body (i.e. biceps, triceps, deltoids, pectorals), precious few focus on those tiny muscles inside the shoulder joint that are so important in injury prevention. Many a shoulder injury is due to a weak or torn rotator cuff. These two exercises strengthen opposing rotator cuff muscles and should be done as a set. You will need a band of rubber tubing with handles, such as TheraBand or SPRI.
Exercise 1: Secure one handle of the tubing by looping it around a stable post. Hold the free handle with your hand closest to the post, and stand far enough away to create some tension on the tubing. Keeping your elbow at a right angle and glued to your side, pull the handle across your body. You should feel the muscles in front of your shoulder joint working.
Exercise 2: Switch hands, but continue facing the same direction. Adjust your position, if necessary, to create the right amount of tension on the tubing. You will now be pulling the handle outward. Keep your elbow and upper arm glued to your side, as before. You should feel the muscles in back of your shoulder joint working.
(Turn around and repeat Exercises 1 and 2 facing the opposite direction, so that each arm will have performed both the inward and outward movement.)
The hip is a ball-and-socket joint, formed where the rounded head of the femur bone is cradled by the pelvis. Many fitness programs focus primarily on the large muscles of the thigh, moving the leg in just two planes—forward and back, and side to side—while ignoring the finer movements made by smaller muscles. In contrast, a program like Pilates will exercise the joint in a full range of motion. This increased mobility will boost the production of lubricating synovial fluid, thus helping to keep the joint loose, flexible, and pain-free.
Exercise: Lie on your back with both feet on the floor, about hip width apart. Raise one knee toward your chest. Imagine a large clock on the ceiling—trace your knee around the circle, trying to find your full range of motion. Make sure to keep the non-working leg still, the knee pointing directly upward and your hip bones stationary. After tracing around the clock several times, reverse the direction. (Repeat on the other side.)
A hinge joint connecting the femur and tibia bones, the knee is designed to move in only one plane. The quadriceps muscles of the thigh converge over the patella in a strong, thick tendon. Depending how strong the inner and outer quadriceps muscles are, the patella may glide easily back and forth, or it may be pulled off center by a muscular imbalance. The most common imbalance is one where the inner quad muscle is weaker, leading to wear and tear on the cartilage—and inevitably pain. Our goal here is to create balance in the musculature. This exercise may be done without weights, but as you gain strength, you will need a set of light ankle weights for greater resistance.
Exercise: Sit on a bench or chair. Extend one leg forward until your knee is straight, ideally aiming to have your leg parallel to the floor, but without letting your back slouch. From there, bend your knee a few degrees. Slowly straighten it, concentrating on working the muscle just above the knee and slightly toward the inside. Keep your thigh absolutely still, so that the knee functions like a hinge. The key is to stay in a small range of motion, fully straightening the knee each time. (Repeat on the other side.)
Written by: Elisabeth Crawford, Author
About the Author:
Elisabeth Crawford is a former contemporary dancer and Pilates instructor. Her book “Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates” was the very first book to combine stability ball training with the principles of the Pilates method. She is also the author of the award-winning cookbook “Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.”