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Diet and exercise changes for osteoarthritis

Lesley Dobson / 01 December 2015

If you have osteoarthritis, eating well, losing weight and keeping active can help you feel better, maintain mobility and improve your health.

Healthy vegetables
When you’re choosing fruit and vegetables include a wide variety so you get as many different vitamins as you can.

How to eat well if you have osteoarthritis

Eating a Mediterranean diet is a healthy choice in lots of ways. Make sure that your meals are made up of plenty of fruit and vegetables, (at least five portions a day), lean meat, eggs, nuts, pulses and olive oil.

Starchy whole meal carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta can form a good base for your meals.

When you’re choosing fruit and vegetables include a wide variety so you get as many different vitamins as you can.

Oily fish such as salmon and fresh tuna is important too, as it adds omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, which may help protect you against heart disease.

According to Arthritis Research UK, a good diet can help protect you against some side effects of some of the drugs prescribed for people with arthritis (although not necessarily osteoarthritis).

Related: How to get omega 3 if you don't like salmon

Watch your weight

If you have osteoarthritis being overweight can affect you on a daily basis.

This is because when you’re carrying too much weight it increases the strain on joints such as your back, knees, hips, feet and ankles.

When you walk the pressure in your knee is five to six times your body weight.

Losing even a small amount of weight can make a big difference to your pain levels and your ability to carry on a normal life.

If you need to lose weight, work out which type of weight-loss programme will work for you.

Cutting out biscuits, cakes, pies and other high calorie foods, counting calories, or simply having smaller portions at meal times can all help with weight loss.

Related: 10 ways to take care of your joints

Exercise and osteoarthritis

If your joints are hurting you may not feel like doing exercise, but it is important.

Walking, swimming, whatever exercise you can manage, helps to keep your joints supple, strengthens your muscles and actually reduces the amount of pain you feel.

Ideally, we should all be doing 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. And it should be exercise that leaves us slightly out of breath – that’s an easy way of knowing whether you’re doing enough.

If you haven’t exercised for a while start gently and increase the amount of time and effort you put in slowly.

Just five to 10 minutes of exercise each day will get you started, and you can build up from there, by doing another one or two five-to-10 minute sessions later in the day.

Try not to overdo it. Start gently and build up slowly. You may not be able to exercise every day when you start, but that doesn’t matter, as long as you keep going.

The benefits of exercising are worth the time and effort – stronger muscles, more mobile joints, stronger bones, a healthier heart, and you lose weight too.

Related: 10 ways to do more exercise without even noticing

Why better sleep may help

Poor sleep patterns can make a huge difference to how you feel. If you have a disturbed sleep pattern for some time it can lead to anxiety or depression.

Poor sleep or sleeplessness can may make you more aware of pain or increase your pain levels.

Arthritis can affect sleep as the condition causes pain. So it may mean that you stiffen up while in bed or if you remain immobile in one position for too long.

There are things you can do to help improve your sleep however.

  • Develop a sleep routine – go to bed at the same time every day, and avoid stimulants like TV (don’t have one in your bedroom), and late dinners
  • Have a warm bath before you go to bed, to help ease stiff joints
  • Think about changing your mattress if it has become worn and lumpy
  • Make sure your pillows are supporting your head and neck

Talk to your GP or specialist about painkillers and anti-inflammatory treatments.

Pain killers can get rid of discomfort for long enough for you to get off to sleep. 

Some antidepressant drugs, such as amitriptyline can be effective painkillers and are used as long-term treatment for chronic pain. If you take them a few hours before bed they may help you fall asleep.

There are other ways of helping you get off to sleep – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and relaxation and imagery training are drug-free ways of aiding sleep.

Related: Strategies for a better night's sleep

Arthritis Research UK website


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.