If you're affected by aching, stiff, tender, and painful joints, you're in good company. According to research, approximately 1 in 5 (1.6 million) Australians aged 45 and over are living with chronic pain, and a majority of these people are dealing with chronic pain specifically affecting their joints.1
Why is joint pain so common? While many factors influence who is affected by it and who isn't—including genetics, lifestyle, and the environment—one of the most common and controllable risk factors for joint pain is excessive weight and obesity.2
Excess weight is associated with everything from heart disease to diabetes to poor body image. But the potential ramifications of carrying around excess body fat on joint health—especially in the knees, hips, and spine—are significant and often overlooked.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 3 Americans who are overweight or obese are living with arthritis (joint inflammation,3 similar study was not conducted in Australia. Osteoarthritis, the most common type of joint inflammation, occurs when the protective cartilage lining inside the joints wears down. Over time, this leads to significant pain, stiffness, swelling, and decreased range of motion.
Why are arthritis and other types of joint pain so common among people who are overweight? The first reason is largely self-explanatory: having a higher bodyweight increases the amount of load imposed on the joints, and loading a joint beyond its safe stress tolerance causes damage.3
Consider what happens during normal walking. Biomechanical studies show that a load equal to about 1.5 times your bodyweight passes through your knees as you walk on a flat surface.4 If you walk quickly, walk up or down an incline, or carry extra weight, then the amount of force becomes even greater.
The implication of this data is clear for people who are overweight and obese: simply functioning in day-to-day life can impose excessive strain on the joints and lead to pain and dysfunction. This is particularly true for overweight people who have other risk factors for arthritis (such as genetics and a history of joint trauma).
And it's not just the extra weight itself that can lead to joint pain. Research suggests that the widespread systemic inflammation associated with obesity can further damage joints.3,5 Plus, painful joints can make it difficult to exercise—and exercise is essential for not only sustainable weight loss, but for improved joint health, as well.
By losing excess weight, people struggling with joint pain have so much to gain.
Research shows that a weight loss program focusing on healthy diet and exercise can reduce chronic pain and drastically improve joint function. This is largely because weight loss will decrease the amount of load imposed through the joints during weight-bearing activities.
For instance, at least one study found that for every half kilo of weight lost there is a 2 kilo decrease in the amount of forces imposed on the knee while walking.3,6 This is encouraging news, because it suggests that even modest weight loss can result in significant improvement in joint function and pain—a pretty decent return on investment.
Additionally, lifestyle factors associated with losing excess body fat can minimise systemic inflammation, which we know can exacerbate joint damage.7,8 And the better we feel overall, the more likely we are to maintain healthy habits that protect our joints and help us maintain a lean body mass.
Not sure where to begin on your weight loss journey? These simple suggestions may help: