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Age-Related Stiffness

Breland Scharschmidt, Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Institute, Southwest Health

If you wake up in the morning with pain or stiffness, you may be wondering where it comes from. The majority of the population aged 40 years and older will experienced some extent of joint pain or stiffness. As you age, the connective tissue and cartilage cushion between joints can wear down and become thinner. Aging can also lead to a reduction in fluid, bone density, and muscle size, attributing to stiffness, fatigue, weakness, and reduced tolerance to activity. This can be a dangerous combination. If you’re feeling stiff and weak, you’re likely not going to want to work those muscles. However, a lack of use can cause 50% of age-related changes to muscles, bones, and joints. Genetics, hormonal changes, age, and weight are the primary factors that contribute to joint deterioration.

So what can you do to either slow down or minimize the effect of age-related stiffness?

There are some effects of aging that are inevitable, like, wrinkles or grey hair. But changes to muscles, joints, and bones are preventable when lack of use is the primary cause. Research has shown that physical activity can help reduce or reverse the risk of disuse, disability, or chronic disease. Movement of the joint and progressive loading can prevent many age-related changes and reverse the mentioned detrimental effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

A sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to weight gain, further affecting joint pain and stiffness. Every pound of excess weight exerts roughly 4 pounds of extra pressure on your knees, so if you’re 10 pounds overweight, that’s 40 pounds of extra pressure on your knees with every step you take.

Suppose you live a sedentary lifestyle and want to improve your activity tolerance. In that case, starting with a low-impact, low-intensity exercise is best to reduce the risk of injury. One of the most accessible modes of exercise is walking. If you have a low tolerance to activity, beginning with a 3-5 minute walk is a good start. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of heart-pumping physical activity, such as walking, per week to maintain your physical health.

To supplement your 30-minute walk and build muscle, it is also recommended to add moderate resistance interventions at least twice a week. If your current activity tolerance is low, it may take a few months or more to achieve the desired activity levels. If you experience pain limiting your activity tolerance, seek further guidance from your physician, and a referral to physical therapy may be warranted.

Physical therapists at the Orthopedic Institute at Southwest Health in Platteville, and the new Cuba City Clinic, have specialized training in low-impact exercises and are willing to talk about the benefits and potential concerns of this training. All the physical therapists like Breland have experience working in various orthopedic facilities with a specific focus on sports injuries, joint replacements, and post-surgical rehabilitation.

For further questions or additional information about age-related stiffness, contact the Rehab Services at The Orthopedic Institute at (608) 342-4748.