Joints are the areas in the body where two or more bones meet, keeping the skeleton together and helping to allow movement. They are configured to be supple but stable, consisting of cartilage (tissue that covers the bone), synovial membrane (which lubricates and encapsulates the joint), ligaments (tissues that connect bone to bone), tendons (tissues that connect muscle to bone), and bursas (sacs that cushion friction). These important structures allow us to safely absorb impact from movements such as walking, jogging, and jumping.
The mobility of our joints can affect our quality of life. The largest joints in the body, the ball-and-socket joints of the shoulders and hips, should be supple enough to reach, stretch, and extend the body to meet an object but strong enough to brace the body when we lift an item overhead onto a high shelf or to catch ourselves after stumbling. The hinge joints of the knees and elbows ideally extend through their full range of motion so that we can transition properly through each gait cycle when walking, jogging, or running. The pivot joints of the wrists and ankles allow us to move the outermost portion of our extremities dynamically. Without the appropriate harmonious balance of flexibility and stability within the joints, our quality of movement is affected, whether it be when sitting, standing, or moving.
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One of the most important benefits of having freely movable joints is injury prevention. Hypomobility is characterized by being restricted in our range of motion in a particular joint. A lack of stretching and excessive strength training can be primary causes of limited joint movement. If our joints are more fixed in their range of motion, we are more likely to strain, sprain, and tear joint and muscle tissue. These injuries are common in older adults, as with age we lose the elasticity and hydration within our joints, especially in the shoulders, knees, and hips. Athletes in certain sports are also largely susceptible to these types of injuries due to continuous impact.
However, injuries do not just occur from being tight and inflexible. Many injuries also occur due to hypermobility. This is characterized by the ability to take joints beyond what is considered a normal range of motion. This can cause — and be caused by — weak muscles surrounding a particular joint and may lead to joint pain or discomfort after some activities. Hypermobility can be genetic, but in large part, it is more directly due to lifestyle and activity habits. Overstretching, in combination with little or no strength training, can lead to hypermobility and chronically loose joints.
Just as it is important to maintain strength in each muscle of the body, it is critical to keep our joints mobile, moving each one individually and intentionally. Take five minutes to try these simple exercises, either first thing in the morning, during a short work break, or before getting into bed.
Standing normally, make as big a circle as you possibly can with one arm, forward, up and around, allowing your trunk to rotate as you reach back (similar to a single-arm backstroke). Make five rotations front to back and five rotations back to front. Repeat on the other side.
Stand near a wall or desk for support. Take one knee as far up as you can and rotate the leg up and around as if you are stepping backward over a tall hurdle. Return the leg forward the same way. Repeat five to 10 times on each side.
Stand with your feet comfortably wide apart and your arms in a “T” shape. Exhale as you bend at the waist and reach your right hand toward your left foot or shin. Inhale as you return to standing and immediately reach to the opposite side. Repeat 10 touches on each side.