30 Everyday Movements You’re Making That Are Wrecking Your Joints
How you sit, stand, and sleep can really be a drag on your joints. With a few easy adjustments, you can reduce your risk of joint pain.
Joint pain 101
Many people deal with aches, pains, and joint soreness. This could is commonly due to osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, but could also be due to overusing joints, injury, or other health issues. If you’re guilty of the following everyday movements, you’re also straining your joints and exacerbating any joint pain. Here are some movements you probably need to do every day, and ways to avoid injury while you are doing them, according to experts.
Sitting at your desk
Obvious, but how long have you been doing this today? Hunching at your desk increases the pressure on the spine, leading to neck and shoulder pain, says Jonathan DeMatteis, DPT, an affiliate of Plancher Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. (Learn the ergonomically fit way to set up your desk, or, if it’s available at your office, consider getting a stand-up desk.)
Crossing your legs
It’s not just static sitting that gets you in trouble, but sitting while crossing your legs makes the problem even worse, says Gavin Silver, DPT, clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in Hewlett, New York. “Although this may feel comfortable at the moment, this position puts increased compressive forces on the lumbar spine and puts your abdominal muscles in a poor position to work efficiently to stabilize your trunk,” he explains. And that can all injure discs, leading to joint pain. When you sit, keep both feet on the floor and keep knees parallel with your hips.
Staying in the same position
If you’re not getting 10,000 steps a day—it helps to wear a movement tracker (like a Fitbit)—your body will suffer. “We’re built to move,” says Eric Robertson, PT, DPT, board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and an American Physical Therapy Association spokesperson. If you’re not moving around enough, you’re not doing yourself any favors. (Here’s how you can incorporate more walking into your daily routine.)
Bending your spine forward to stand up relies on your trunk muscles to do the work, when really it should be your hip muscles, says Sridhar Yalamanchili, a physical therapist with Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, New Jersey. He suggests this fix: keep your spine straight as you attempt to stand, and use your butt muscles if needed. (Try these 22 ways to stand more, and more healthfully.)
Wearing worn out shoes
First, shoes that are past their prime can make it uncomfortable to walk, which may prompt you to move less. Second, shoes wear out unevenly, and that can put an uneven amount of weight on certain parts of your foot, says Robertson. That’s enough to be a secret source of pain. Replace your shoes when they’ve seen better days.
Staring at your laptop
As if prolonged sitting wasn’t bad enough, adding a computer into the mix makes things worse. Having your neck in a flexed position for hours throughout the day “places neck muscles in a lengthened position, possibly causing headaches and neck pain,” says Yalamanchili. Place a large book under your laptop to raise it up to a more comfortable height. (Here are five exercises that can reduce neck pain.)
Letting aches stop you
Minor aches and pains don’t need to stop you from working out, says Robertson. “It’s okay to feel some discomfort, as long as it goes away in a reasonable amount of time,” he says. Even if you are injured, you can still find safe ways to move that won’t make things worse.
Carrying a baby
Whether you’re a parent or a grandparent, you probably have one arm (and one side) that you use to tote around that tot. Problem is, favoring one position increases stress on your spine. He may be cute, but he’s giving you back pain. If possible, use a baby carrier when you can. It not only protects your back, but you get your hands free, too. (Here are some exercises that can reduce back pain.)
Picking up a baby
They’re trouble, aren’t they? Constantly bending over to pick up and put her down is another source of baby-related spine stress. The better way, says Silver: When bending to lift up a baby, make sure you bend from the knees and hips, not your back, and keep your abdominal muscles tight. Try to get as close as you can to your baby before lifting her up, which will be easier on your body, he adds.
Going to the bathroom
When you squat down, you may have a tendency to excessively turn in at your knee, tripping patellofemoral problems (the cartilage under your knee cap), notes DeMatteis. Make sure your knees stay in line whenever you’re lowering down—yep, even if it’s onto the toilet.
Squats are a great exercise to tone your glutes, but another common squatting mistake is allowing your knees to come past your toes at the bottom of the move, says DeMatteis. This can overload the knee joint, leading to pain. (Learn how to correctly do a squat and you’ll be on your way.)
Having a repetitive job
There’s nothing wrong with having a job that requires you to do the same movements every day. That said, these repetitive activities load tissue repeatedly, explains Robertson, which can overtime weaken the tissue and surrounding joints, making you more prone to injury. Whatever you’re doing, ensure that your body is in the most comfortable position possible.
Not adjusting the headrest in your car
It’s not just your seat that matters—your head rest makes all the difference. “Driving with the headrest not adjusted to your head height not only increases your risk for whiplash injuries in case of an accident, but causes undue stress on the neck while driving,” says Yalamanchili. Make sure you adjust the headrest to your head height. The backrest of the seat should also allow you to sit with your lower back and head supported, he says.
Taking the elevator
Don’t be afraid to charge up those stairs. “An active lifestyle promotes joint health and keeps you strong and flexible,” says Joe Tatta, DPT, author of Heal Your Pain Now. “When joints are strong and flexible, they can function better,” he says. Exercise, even in small amounts, brings healthy blood flow and oxygen around your body so you can function at your best.
Doing a neck roll
You know how your neck is kind of stiff so you give it a nice circle to one side? Warning: don’t do it! “This is not how our neck is meant to move,” says Silver. Circling your neck causes a grinding effect that wears away your vertebrae and discs overtime. Instead, when you need to loosen up, do a trapezius stretch (bend your head sideways to bring your ear to your shoulder) and levator scapulae stretch (rotate your head and look down towards your armpit). Hold each for 30 seconds.
Relaxing while sitting
When you’re slouched while watching TV, your back arches into the shape of a “C,” which can put pressure on lower back discs and trigger pain in the area, says Yalamanchili. Consider ditching TV altogether. No? OK, then. When resting, sit with your lower back against the backrest of the chair. If there’s still a gap, place a small pillow or rolled up towel in the small of your back.
Even though hoofing it may be good for you, you need your legs to be adequately strong to carry you mile after mile. “Running can increase the ground reaction forces through your knee joint by seven times your body weight,” says DeMatteis. Avoid these common running mistakes, and make sure to strengthen your lower body with squats, leg presses, and glute bridges.
Despite the rumor that running ruins your joints, turns out the sport is good for you after all. You might be amazed at all the positive ways running changes your body. In fact, one small 2017 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that running benefits knee health. So don’t stop if it’s something you love.
Before your run, warm up right. You’ll also want to incorporate stretching into your weekly routine, says DeMatteis. Focus on your lower body, particularly your calves, IT band, hamstrings, and quadriceps, which will improve your flexibility so you can feel good as you rack up the miles.
Not pacing yourself
Does this sound like you? You’re so excited to start a new workout regimen that you go all-out right away. Too much too soon can prevent you from allowing your body to make the adaptations necessary to get stronger. Plus, you risk injury, too. Tatta recommends doing a little more each day or week. For instance, if you’ve started walking, walk one mile the first four days, then bump it up to 1.25 miles the next four days, and so on.
Staring at your cell phone
When you’re hunched over, your neck is pulled into an awkward posture. Plus, it often happens when you’re sitting for a long time, which only worsens pain, notes DeMatteis. Practicing simple stretches every day, like an upper trap stretch, can help.
Yep, this is different than just scrolling through your social media feed. In order to type, you have to severely flex your head and neck to look down—there’s even a name for this: text neck. That can increase the forces on your neck by five times what’s normal, says Silver. Arthritic changes in the vertebrae, degeneration or bulging of discs, bone spurs, and muscle dysfunction are some of the not-so-pretty consequences, he adds. Take breaks from your phone when you can. If you’re at a table with friends or family members, that’s a great time to put it down for a breather.
Staying on the couch if you’re hurt
It’s a myth that if you’re injured you shouldn’t move, says Tatta. To keep your joints healthy, rest no more than 24 hours (and follow these rules for icing). After that, start moving again in a healthy way.
Picking up something you dropped
If you’re like most people, you probably round your back as you pick the object off the floor, but this impinges on discs in your lumbar spine, says Alexander Lucci, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in Sutton Place, New York. Squat down over the object and keep your back flat and upright as you pick it up, he recommends.
Carrying a heavy bag
Keeping a bag on one shoulder is a drag to your posture that can lead to neck pain. “When one side of your shoulder is hiked to keep your bag in place, the muscle stays under tension for long periods of time,” says DeMatteis. If you’re willing to make a switch—despite the fact that your handbag says a lot about your personality—he suggests wearing a cross body bag or a backpack.
Sleeping on your stomach
Maybe you snoozed this way for years—decades even—but your body may be screaming for mercy. Sleeping on your stomach impairs the natural curve in your neck and lower back, eventually leading to stiffness and pain, says Yalamanchili. Slowly try to move away from belly sleeping. (If you moved to your back, resting your thighs on a pillow can make the position more comfortable.)
Letting your body be stiff
“All of us have certain parts of our body that get tight from adopting certain postures. That’s natural,” says Tatta. But don’t just let your body hang out in discomfort. Every 60 minutes (set a timer!) get up and move around. (Always have two or three simple exercises in your back pocket that you can do anywhere.)
If you’re a side sleeper, here’s a pain-causing culprit: twisting or crossing your legs while you snooze. This overworks your back and hips, causing discomfort. (Not to mention cutting into a good night’s rest.) The fix: lay on your side with a pillow between your knees to keep your spine neutral. (Here are some doctor-recommended tips to sleep better.)
Performing a sit up
You don’t need to do crunches to get a flat belly. “Repeated flexion of the spine can result in squeezing and eventually bulging discs, a precursor to herniation,” says Silver. Ouch. Planks are a great way to work your core while keeping your spine aligned.
Being afraid to lift heavy objects
Remember how moving more is the best thing you can do for joints? The opposite—avoiding specific movements out of fear—is one of the worst. Of course, you want to be safe no matter what. But if you’re afraid to do something, like lift a heavier object, it creates what’s called a fear-avoidance behavior, explains Tatta. “The message ‘don’t lift things, you’ll hurt your back,’ creates fear and turns on pain signals in the brain,” he explains. Staying active in safe ways will quiet them down so you can stay active and preserve your joints for life.
- Jonathan DeMatteis, DPT, an affiliate of Plancher Orthopedics & Sports Medicine
- Gavin Silver, DPT, clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in Hewlett, NY
- Eric Robertson, PT, DPT, board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and an American Physical Therapy Association spokesperson
- Sridhar Yalamanchili, a physical therapist with Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, New Jersey
- Joe Tatta, DPT, author of Heal Your Pain Now
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Running decreases knee intra-articular cytokine and cartilage oligomeric matrix concentrations: a pilot study"
- Alexander Lucci, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in Sutton Place, New York