How To Move Without Pain

Best Ways to Maintain Joint Health and Reduce Joint Pain in Winter

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

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Millions of people dread the winter months, not just because of the cold, snow, and short days. Cold weather is a time when many people are less active, arthritis pains seem to flair, and joints feel stiffer. Studies show that more than half of the people polled spend less time outside, are less active, and tend to stay inside and ‘hunker down’ until spring. Joint stiffness is not just a problem for adults, it also affects children’s joints.

The cold winter weather brings with it various health problems, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many ways to maintain joint mobility during winter. Some people choose to exercise indoors while others go for walks outdoors or use heated pads on their joints at home before bedtime.

Staying active in winter can be a challenge due to the wintery weather and slippery conditions outside and the tendency for more couch time (sitting time) inside. The best recommendation would be to continue with the same activity level as you would during the spring, summer and fall. Go for the daily walk, head to the gym a couple of times a week, and meet a friend for a morning walk.  Maintain all the ways you usually keep yourself active, joints loose, and muscles strong.  Wintertime changes how much we move our bodies, how many steps we take in a day, how strong we maintain our muscle strength. Rather than meet for a morning walk, it’s lunches at a local bistro or hot lattes in a cafe. Sitting rather than activity at home and with friends turns into the winter norm.

Regular activity is important for our health and well-being. 

Physical activity can improve: 

  •  brain function
  • reduce the risk of disease
  • strengthen bones and maintain (or improve) muscle strength. 

Maintaining activity improves the health of our heart, lung capacity, and overall endurance. Everyone can experience the health benefits of physical activity, no matter their age, race, medical history, current activity level, or ability. According to the CDC, adults should strive to reach 150 minutes of activity a week of moderately intense activity, striving to increase their heart rate. Also two days a week of muscle strengthening exercise. There are more details about the CDC recommendations can be reviewed here.  Many activities count including walking around your house (I know laps are boring but they can get the joints loose, muscles contracting, and heart pumping), riding a stationary bike, trying water aerobics, or playing more pickleball (it seems everyone is playing pickleball these days) and even using your errands to improve your activity. After an errand stay, continue to walk around the building and use the hallways to stretch your legs and get your activity minutes in for that day.

7 Best Ideas To Stay Joint Healthy During Winter

Move Regularly, Exercises Regularly

Many people stay inside and stay warm during the winter, leading to decreases in general activity (such as running errands or taking walks),  causing a feeling of lethargy during winter days.  Movement helps to loosen stiff joints, lubricate joint surfaces, improve connective tissue flexibility, and maintain muscle strength. 

Insulate your body

Nothing makes us want to cuddle up on the couch and cover with a blanket than the feeling of being cold. We don’t want to disturb the blanket to let to cold air in, so we stay put. Staying still longer, causes our joints to stiffen, our posture to stay in static positions, our muscles to tighten. Wearing thicker socks, warmer sweatshirts, or layers helps keep us warm so we keep moving.

Drink up. 

Heating systems and forced air are very drying to our skin and our insides. Our throats can feel scratchy and our sinuses can be congested. Increases in drinking water or something warm (tea) during the winter can help with the dryness. Water is also vital to our body’s health and wellness. Drink up!

Can’t brave the outdoors, then walk indoors!

Walking is one of the most accessible activities we have. Walking outdoors on nature paths, walking up and down the driveway or any local park are easy places to walk when the weather is conducive during the sunny (and not slippery) days of winter. You can find the same paths inside too, up and down hallways, figure-eight around tables (which helps balance) are accessible inside your home. Take the long path to appointments and after appointments stay in the building to do some extra laps and get extra activity inside the warmth.

Use the Stairs as your Home Gym

If you have them, stairs are a great way to improve muscle strength and endurance, also joint mobility and flexibility. Use the bottom stair and complete repeated stepping up forward on one leg, then switch and do the same on the other.  Then try sideways step ups to feel the lateral (outside) of the hip muscles working. Place your foot on the stair and shift your weight forward to stretch your knee into more flexion (bend), then straighten your leg, resting your heel on the stair and bending from the waist to stretch the hamstring.  

Stay Consistent

What’s the biggest challenge of maintaining activity during the winter months? Staying consistent. It’s easy to say that activity should be done 5 times a week, but how do you maintain that? How do you not skip one day, two days or three in a row without totally skipping a week? Remember how you feel when you are active – your mood improves, your attention span improves, your joints feel better, and the feeling your muscles give you when you use them. Keep that all in mind! AND know that the work you maintain on your body during the winter will bubble over when the winter is over, in the strength you will have to do your spring cleaning. Your joints will be more flexible and less painful when you start gardening, your balance will be better for walking through your yard or to a ball field to see a game. 

Seek help 

Joint pain can occur any time of year, but if your activity is decreasing then so is your muscle strength. Studies have shown that after the flu or other simple fever, there can be a 25% decrease in muscle strength. Loss of muscle can be the cause of changes in joint mobility, the strain on joint ligaments, and tendons causing pain. This pain (as hopeful as you might be that it will go away on its own) may last for days, weeks, or months, leading to a cycle of immobility and pain. Seeking a screen for your need of possible treatment for your joint pain will reduce the length of time the pain is present at your joint, address joint mobility and flexibility changes that have occurred, and address any underlying joint restrictions that may be present. 

It is important to exercise during wintertime, whether osteoarthritis is present or not. Not only because it makes you warm, but it can help boosts the immune system to  fight seasonal flus & colds. The most important component of an exercise program is finding something you enjoy. If you’re having fun, it’ll be more likely for you to stick with it.

*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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adults walking in snow