Have you ever noticed how stiff you feel after sitting at work for an hour or more? Our bodies are made to move, but in the modern American lifestyle we’re typically seated hour after hour in our cars, at our desks and at home.
If you’re particularly health-conscious, you might set aside an hour now and then for a walk or a work-out – then just sit or stand the rest of the day, compressing the joints and spine.
The consequences of living this way are easy to see. At the very least, muscles shrink and become flabby or our spine begins to slump. We look less healthy and lose our confident stride.
But the greater hidden cost is not as easy to see right away. Eventually, our sedentary habits can lead to chronic diseases: nearly 50% of Americans have heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, and about 40% of us are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These conditions can directly result in inflamed joints, arthritis and chronic joint pain, which currently affect more than 54 million Americans by U.S. government estimates. Most people with arthritis are over 40 years old, although people younger than 40 can also be affected.
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs when the flexible tissue at the ends of the bones wears down. Osteoarthritis may result from a traumatic joint injury, or may progress slowly from over-use, excessive weight gain, or sedentary living. The next most common type of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, is a chronic inflammatory disorder which can have a wide variety of causes, including prolonged stress, poor gut health, and prescription drug side-effects. There are also other, less common types of arthritis, and it is possible to develop more than one kind.
As our joints weaken or become inflamed, joint injuries and falls become more common. The more we hurt, the less we want to move. Seeking relief, many Americans try temporary solutions such as cortisone injections or increasing doses of ibuprofen, or even fall victim to prescription opioid addiction. Long-term use of some of these prescription drugs can further damage joints, contributing to a downward cycle of pain, stress and depression.
The Arthritis Foundation cites stress and anxiety as significant problems for those coping with joint pain. Stress can increase inflammation in the joints as well as contributing to other serious health problems. As clinical psychologist Dr. Rudy Nydegger, PhD of Clarkson University in New York says, “When prolonged stress leads to anxiety, it can make you super-aware of symptoms. For example, pain hurts more.”
If you count yourself among those with chronic joint pain, and particularly if joint pain is limiting your ability to move, experts at the CDC and the Arthritis Foundation urge us to begin reversing the condition by taking these common-sense actions:
1. Lose weight.
2. Move more.
3. Try integrative health therapies instead of pain drugs.
4. Develop your mind-body connection.
5. Eat fresh foods (not sugar, refined carbohydrates or prepackaged meals).
To get moving, swimming and cycling are gentle on the joints. So are yoga, taichi and qigong, now recommended by many doctors and health organizations for increasing range of motion, improving balance and reducing joint pain.
In a 2015 Johns Hopkins study, compared with a control group, patients who practiced yoga reported a 20 percent improvement in pain, mobility, energy levels and mood. The slow, mindful movements and breathing in yoga, taichi and qigong are particularly recommended as a means to deal with the stress associated with joint pain, and to gain the confidence to develop other healthy habits.
Regular exercise, such as what you might practice at your local Body & Brain center, can help you increase the muscle strength around your joints, helping to absorb some of the impact when you move. Exercise can also be part of a regimen that helps you lose weight, which may relieve pressure on sore joints. Most Body & Brain centers incorporate an 18-joint stretching sequence in their meridian yoga and taichi-qigong classes. This sequence is great for helping your joints to feel more relaxed and flexible, and these exercises can also be done at home.
Since it usually takes several months of regular practice to see improvements, plan for a sustained effort of about three classes per week plus homework. Try to relax and ease into the more difficult stretches without straining, giving your body time to adjust. Remember to exhale as you stretch, and stay focused on what you’re doing. Ask your center manager for homework, including the 18-joint stretching sequence.
If you’re trying to move more, but find the joint pain frustrating, consider adding private yoga sessions or energy healing to your program. These complementary therapies can be effective in providing temporary relief.
In a Body & Brain private session, you can expect to gain new insights and a set of simple exercises tailored to your condition. With a skilled practitioner’s guidance, you can also try energy healing for yourself. Another technique that is easy to learn and can be helpful is tapping, a type of self-massage that can be used to relieve chronic joint pain. Tapping, often referred to in the U.S. as “emotional freedom therapy” (EFT), is recommended for reducing stress as well.
Ask about “Belly Button Healing,” too. This simple self-massage technique produces conditions that can contribute to increased production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and the analgesic enkephalins for natural pain relief. In the long run, learning to care for yourself is a great investment of time and energy.
Among physicians and researchers who have consulted with Body & Brain, strengthening the mind-body connection has been a common recommendation. Dr. Emeran Mayer, MD of UCLA, an expert in the neurology of stress syndromes, encourages patients to visualize and become more aware of the interconnectedness of their bodies. He asserts that the whole body is more than the sum of its many parts; it is an ecosystem, so doctors and patients should not just focus on the one part that hurts. In his book Functional Pain Syndromes (with M.C. Bushnell, IASP Press, 2009), he notes that practices such as yoga, taichi and qigong which require a higher than usual level of focus can be important in managing pain. Training the brain to focus is an important prerequisite for mindfulness.
According to experts such as Dr. Mayer and Dr. Rick Hanson, PhD, meditation, breathwork, visualization and other mindfulness training, it is possible to shift the body’s neurological pain response out of fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode and into healing (parasympathetic) mode. For those with arthritis, this might not only help reduce the sensation of painful joints, but may also contribute to reducing joint inflammation.
If you are among the lucky ones who don’t have arthritis or joint pain now, take stock of your current lifestyle – how many hours are you just sitting or standing, but not really moving? Review the five recommended actions listed above, as a checklist. Are you already doing these actions?
A good preventive way to take care of your overall health for the sake of your joints is to adopt the “one minute exercise” break, advocated by noted author, wellness expert and Body & Brain founder, Ilchi Lee in the book I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years: each hour during the day, get out of your chair and do any exercise for at least one minute. Incorporate one-minute stretches head to toe throughout your day, including joint stretches along with energizing and strengthening movements such as push-ups and squats. Or try plate-balancing for increasing overall circulation and joint flexibility (it’ll also be good for heating up your immune system).
Try taking a one minute exercise break at least 8 times every day. A smart phone app might be helpful to get started, like the “1 Minute Change” app which includes a variety of videos you can use to vary your routine, as well as timing and tracking features.
Find it here: iPhone | Android
Take care of your joints today by adopting these recommended practices. If you already have arthritis or chronic joint pain, it’s not too late to improve your quality of life. Develop a long-term self-management plan that includes Body & Brain classes, and schedule regular progress check-ups with your center manager.
It’s important to note that chronic joint pain is different from the pain of an injury that has not yet healed. If you have recently incurred a joint injury, please consult with your physician before proceeding with Body & Brain practice, and keep your center manager and instructors apprised of your situation.
Learn more about how neurotransmitters and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in the Mind-Gut Connection, Emeran Mayer (2016, Harper Collins) and The Solar Body, Ilchi Lee (2015, Best Life).