You take your medications as prescribed. You see your doctor regularly and are good about sticking to your arthritis treatment plan — all key steps to helping to ease symptoms and prevent disease progression. But the everyday choices you make — like how active you are and how you handle stress and fatigue — affect your joints, too. And sometimes, seemingly inconsequential habits may derail your good efforts. It helps to be aware, so you can make adjustments if needed. Here are some surprising habits that could be hurting your joints when you have arthritis:
1. Drinking coffee concoctions
Consider the white chocolate mocha from Starbucks: a grande topped with whipped cream contains almost 15 teaspoons of sugar and 500 calories. Order yourself a Dunkin’ caramel-flavored frozen coffee and be prepared to slurp down 36 teaspoons of sugar and more than 700 calories. Those fancy brew-mabobs and other sugar-sweetened beverages (like sodas and flavored fruit drinks) are no good for you, for lots of reasons. First: Added sugar promotes inflammation in your body, says registered dietician Cat Taylor, LD, CSSD, with Nutrition on Demand.
“Higher levels of pro-inflammatory markers circulating in the blood can lead to chronic inflammation, which over time can damage organs and body tissues, including your joints,” she says. Plus, those empty calories won’t satisfy your hunger. Research shows regularly consuming sugar-sweetened drinks is linked to greater weight gain and obesity, which can make arthritis symptoms worse.
No one’s saying you can’t treat yourself every now and then, but drinking these regularly isn’t doing your joints any favors.
2. Not getting enough activity (even a few minutes of walking here and there)
Gentle physical activity won’t make your joints worse. In fact, the exact opposite is true — whether you have osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriatic arthritis. Research shows when done correctly, even a little bit of exercise can help decrease arthritis pain and stiffness. That’s because any sort of movement helps lubricate the joints — kind of like oil on a creaky hinge. Daily activities, such as sweeping the kitchen floor or talking the dog for a stroll, also help.
So does doing some stretching every day — even if you have a flare of RA or an increase in OA pain, says Wayne Johnson, MD, orthopedic surgeon and assistant clinical professor at the University of Oklahoma. Simple movements to help you stay active can help diminish some of the pain and maintain range-of-motion. Check out these range-of-motion stretches you can start doing every morning.
3. Having a consistently negative outlook
When you’re hurting, it’s easy to think the pain is permanent and there’s nothing you can do. That mindset, however, may actually make your pain worse and last longer. An important part of your treatment plan is your own outlook on life. Talk to your doctor if you’re feeling frustrated. They may have ideas about how to cope or refer you to someone who can help. These tips from mental health experts on coping with chronic illness are also a good place to start.
4. Opting for turf, not surf…
You prefer steak to salmon and burgers over branzino — and that’s ok now and then. But red meat, as well as poultry and full-fat dairy, contains saturated fats. A diet high in saturated fat is associated with an increase in inflammatory blood markers and a decrease in anti-inflammatory blood markers, explains Taylor. “By tailoring your fat intake to include more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer saturated and trans fats, you can alter your body’s inflammatory state, and in turn help your joints,” she says.
Enter the surf: Fatty fish — such as salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, anchovy and branzino — contains the most active form of omega-3 fatty acids. Eating 3 to 6 grams a day of omega-3s could reduce the pain of inflammation from RA, according to a study published the journal Nutrition. Don’t love fish? Other non-fish omega-3 sources include walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed.
5. …And the side of fries instead of veg
Researchers at Harvard found that after potato chips, potatoes may contribute to more weight gain per serving than any other food — and French fries were by far the worst offenders. Extra weight can exacerbate inflammatory arthritis. Plus, it can put increased pressure on your joints — particularly your knees, says Christopher Morris, MD a rheumatologist with Arthritis Associates in Kingsport, Tennessee. For every pound a person weighs, about five pounds of stress goes through the knees with every step, he explains. For a 250-pound person, that equates to nearly two-thirds of a ton of stress on the joint.
“The good news is that weight loss really makes a difference,” says Dr. Morris. For example, losing as little as 11 pounds can decrease the progression of knee OA by 50 percent. One way to shed pounds: eat tons of brightly colored veggies. They’re low in calories, high in fiber (so you feel fuller, longer), and provide nutrients that may help fight inflammation. Here are more tips for losing weight when you have arthritis.
6. Skipping strength training
You’ll walk around a track, swim laps, or go biking to help control your weight and fight fatigue. You may do yoga or range-of-motion exercises to improve flexibility. But the idea of weight training seems like too much for your arthritic joints. The truth? It’s not, as long as it’s done correctly and at the right level for you.
Strength exercises build strong muscles to help support, stabilize, and take some of the load off worn-out joints. In one research review on older adults with OA, researchers found strength training reduced pain and improved strength and function. Other studies have shown similar benefits for those with inflammatory arthritis. Strength training can include doing body-weight exercises, using elastic bands, hand-held weights, or weight machines. Talk to your doctor about the safest way to work exercise into your treatment plan. Here are examples of strength exercises for your knees, strength exercises for your shoulders, and strength exercises for your hips.
Awful for you a million different ways, including these: Smoking is linked to an increased risk for developing RA; continuing to smoke if you have RA can make symptoms worse. You may be less likely to experience remission if you smoke, research shows. Smoking contributes to inflammation in the body and makes some arthritis drugs less effective. It may also keep you from doing things that can help you feel better, like exercise. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit smoking.
8. Stashing kitchen gadgets in the cabinets
You like everything to have a place — nothing wrong with that. But for the blender you use make your daily smoothies, the “right” place may be your kitchen counter. And your go-to electronic jar opener should be stored in a top drawer. Set up your home to make life a little easier on you, particularly on the more difficult days, say experts. In the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, keep everything you use often within easy reach. And use specialized assistive tools throughout the day — zipper pulls, spring-action scissors, and long shoe horns to help conserve energy and ease pain. These tips can help make cooking easier, and these tips can help with other household chores.
9. Never saying no
Drinks after work and meeting the family out for dinner sounds great — in theory. But when you have a chronic condition like arthritis, there will be times when your body needs rest to stay healthy. Maybe you’re experiencing a flare or feeling particularly fatigued. Know your limits, and don’t force yourself to push past them — no matter how guilty you may feel for bailing or how thick your loved ones are laying it on. Here are more tips for handling social plans without the guilt.
10. Facebooking before bed
Or maybe you tend to text, scroll through news sites, or get sucked in to shopping on Amazon. The what you on do on your device doesn’t matter; the fact that you’re on one does. Using electronics at bedtime stimulates your mind, making it harder to fall and stay asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. You need good rest with arthritis. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that poor sleep quality is linked to more severe pain and fatigue, as well as higher levels of depression in people with arthritis. Log off at least 30 minutes before you want to hit the sack, and wind down with a warm bath or good book instead.
11. Not asking for help or support
Arthritis can be a lot. The pain and disability or loss of function can take a toll on your emotions, increase your levels of stress, and lead to depression or anxiety. A research review published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy suggests stress may trigger an RA flare. Though researchers are still trying to understand the connection between arthritis and stress, what we do know is that seeking support can improve how well you cope and manage your condition. Tell family members and friends how you are feeling, and how they can help when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed. Connect with others who have your same condition through a support group in your community or online (our Facebook group and Twitter chats are great outlets). Talk to your doctor if you think you could have symptoms of depression or anxiety.