Our Bodies Are Built to Move
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
According to Susan Day, MD¹ approximately 80% of persons 65 years and older will experience some sort of musculoskeletal complaint. Of these, significant osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease) will be reported by up to 60%.
Let’s talk a little physiology for a moment: Cartilage, the smooth surface surrounding bones in contact with one another through a connection called a joint, contains certain compounds whose main job it is to attract water and hold it there. You can think of the compounds holding water as a sort of oily water balloon. They are awesome shock-absorbers and can perform this task for a very long time, but not forever. Many things can cause these compounds to lose their ability to hold water: age-related tissue changes, long-term repetitive micro-trauma (as in the person who runs multiple times per week for years), or the added stress on the cartilage by being overweight to name a few. When the cartilage loses its ability to hold as much water, the joint surfaces of most commonly the knee, hip, or spine lose some of that cushioning, and over time, bones can begin to make contact with adjacent bones. As you can probably imagine, when bones come in contact with one another, weight-bearing can become excruciating, oftentimes making the individual less likely to keep moving as much.
This lack of moving has many negative effects. It has been well-established that weight-bearing exercise as we age promotes the ability to retain not only muscle mass, but bone density as well.² Strength in these tissues is essential to provide the ability to balance and stay upright, the necessities to avoid a fall and subsequent broken hip. Susan Day states “In the first 5 years following menopause, women lose up to 25% of their bone mass.”¹ She also points out that average decreases in muscle mass are as high as 33% by the time we reach 60.
What does this all mean to us? As we get older, we need to take more effort to stay moving in a healthy and productive way. As long as your health permits, try to get out and move against gravity for a half hour daily. Go for a brisk walk, take ballroom dance lessons with your grandchild, challenge your friends to a friendly game of tennis, or simply decide to take the stairs every time there is the opportunity to use an elevator and to park in the spot which is farthest from the door when you are out and about (note: use care in the winter, as a slip and fall on the ice would negate any benefit you may have experienced).
The worst thing we can do is stop moving altogether. If you are one of the nearly 50% who will eventually develop osteoarthritis, moving can be tricky. It is important for the joints to keep moving to avoid becoming essentially stuck together, but it is also important to not move so much as to further deteriorate the condition of the affected joints. Don’t go with the mantra that without pain there is no gain. If your knees can’t handle the repetitive stress of going down stairs, chances are that going up them won’t hurt nearly as much, so go ahead and take the elevator on the way down.
Our bodies are built to move, to express feelings and emotion, and to propel us through this world. When we stop moving, we forgo fulfillment of one of life’s greatest privileges. So please, enjoy this privilege.
Listen to your body, but also keep in mind that part of the essence that makes humans such amazing creatures is our ability to move and perform such a wide variety of tasks.
¹Susan Day, MD. Clinical Instructor, Michigan State University; Grand Rapids Orthopaedics Residency Program, Grand Rapids, MI ²National Institutes of Health, NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center