You can’t always prevent arthritis. Some causes, such as age and family history, are out of your control. However, a few healthy habits can help reduce your risk of developing painful joints as you get older.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis. The three main types are osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and psoriatic arthritis (PsA). Each type develops differently, but all are painful and can lead to joint deformity and a loss of function.

Many preventive practices — such as exercising and eating a healthy diet — can help prevent other diseases too. Read on to learn more.

Language matters

We use “male” and “female” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with how your body responds to this disease. A doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment.

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Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They have a number of benefits, including reducing inflammation in the body. Research has also shown that omega-3s reduce RA activity in the joints.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends eating a 3.5-ounce serving of fish high in omega-3s — like salmon, trout, mackerel, or sardines — twice a week. Fish caught in the wild is usually recommended over farmed fish.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, try non-fish sources of omega-3s like:

Omega-3 supplements are also available in a variety of doses. They’re derived from sources such as:

Maintaining a moderate weight can help ease the pain from arthritis.

Nearly 23% of people with overweight and 31% of people with obesity in America have a diagnosis of arthritis.

Losing just 1 pound of weight can result in four pounds of pressure being taken off the knees in people with knee OA.

Losing 10% to 20% of starting body weight can help improve pain, improve quality of life, and improve function when compared with losing 5% of body weight.

Exercise not only takes the stress of excess weight off your joints, but it also strengthens the muscles around the joints. This stabilizes them and can protect them from wear and tear.

Exercise can be divided into four categories, and it’s important to get all four types.

Endurance, or aerobic, exercises

This type of exercise, which includes walking, swimming, and biking, gets your heart pumping and builds endurance. It improves your overall fitness and can help trim off some of the pounds that may be putting extra pressure on your joints.

Try to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days a week.

Strength exercises

Lifting weights, using elastic resistance bands, or working against your own body weight strengthens the muscles that support your joints.

Aim for at least two 20- to 30-minute sessions a week of strength exercises. Try to do 8 to 10 repetitions of each exercise weighted or 10 to 15 reps with no weights or lighter weights.

Examples of strength exercises include leg extensions and table pushups:

Leg extensions

  1. Sit in a chair.
  2. Slowly straighten one leg.
  3. Then bring it back to its original position.
  4. Repeat 10 to 15 times with each leg.

Table pushups

  1. Lean with your hands against a sturdy table.
  2. Slowly bend your elbows to lower yourself toward the table. Press back up until your arms are straight.
  3. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

Flexibility exercises

Stretching, yoga, and Pilates are examples of exercises that keep your joints moving through their entire range of motion, prevent stiffness, and reduce your risk of injury.

Stretch at least 4 to 5 days a week, and hold each stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. You can stretch at the end of your workouts or in the morning when you wake up.

Examples of stretches include the quadriceps stretch and overhead reach:

Quadriceps stretch

  1. Hold the back of a chair or a wall with one hand.
  2. Bend the opposite knee.
  3. Holding your leg just above the ankle, pull it gently back toward your buttocks.
  4. Let that knee drop down toward the other one.
  5. Hold the position for a few seconds. Then switch legs.

Overhead reach

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Lift both arms above your head and lightly clasp your hands.
  3. Gently pull your shoulders back and stretch as high as you can.
  4. Hold for a few seconds, then lean to the right and hold again.
  5. Repeat 5 to 10 times on each side.

Balance exercises

Tai chi, balancing on one leg, or walking heel to toe are exercises that improve your balance and posture. If your leg joints are a little wobbly, these types of exercises can also help prevent falls.

Work balance exercise into your routine a few times a week.

Consult a professional

Ask a doctor what types of exercises are best for your fitness level. If you haven’t exercised in the past, start slowly and gradually increase the intensity only when you feel ready. You might walk for just 10 minutes the first day, then 15 minutes, until you’re able to walk a full 30 minutes.

Have a physical therapist or sports trainer teach you how to use the right form. Also switch up your routine, alternating muscle groups to avoid putting too much stress on the same joints.

Over time, your joints can start to wear out naturally. When you injure your joints — for example, while playing sports or due to an accident — you can damage the cartilage and cause it to wear out more quickly.

To avoid injury, always warm up before playing sports and use the proper safety equipment. Wear knee, wrist, and elbow pads and comfortable and supportive shoes.

Bending the knees, climbing, kneeling, heavy lifting, and squatting could lead to joint problems down the road.

Lifting can be especially hard on joints.

Standing and being exposed to vibrations are other risk factors for OA. Some of the jobs that are most likely to lead to joint problems are:

  • builder
  • cleaner
  • farmer
  • metal worker
  • floor layer

Using the right techniques when you sit and lift can help protect your joints from everyday strains. For example, lift with your knees and hips — not your back — when picking up objects. Carry items close to your body so you don’t put too much strain on your wrists.

Kicking the habit can be hard to do. However, quitting smoking not only lowers the risk of heart and lung disease, but it also helps protects against arthritis.

In 2010, the first review of studies was published on smoking and the risk of RA. The researchers found that male smokers were about twice as likely to develop RA as male nonsmokers. Female smokers were about 1.3 times as likely to develop RA as female nonsmokers.

The researchers believe that the increased risk may be because RA affects the way the immune system works. RA is an inflammatory disease, and smoking promotes inflammation throughout the body.

Smoking can also affect your treatment outcome. People who smoke don’t respond as well to arthritis medications.

Bacteria and viruses don’t only produce symptoms such as coughing and sneezing when they make you sick. Some of these germs can also infect your joints and cause arthritis.

Infectious arthritis, also called septic arthritis, is a painful form of joint disease caused by bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (staph). Usually these bacteria get into the bloodstream and travel to the joint or the fluid around the joint. This type of arthritis is treatable with antibiotics.

Respiratory infections such as colds and the flu might also trigger RA, according to a 2019 study. It’s possible that the infection launches an abnormal immune system response that causes this autoimmune disease to develop.

There’s also a strong association between periodontitis (a severe infection of the gums) and RA.

Setting up your home and office more ergonomically can prevent strain and pain on already sore joints. If you have to sit for long periods of time at work, make sure that your back, legs, and arms are well supported.

At work, place your computer monitor about arm’s length from you and about 15 degrees below your sight line to avoid straining your neck. Use an ergonomic keyboard and mouse to keep your arms and hands in a neutral position.

Choose an office chair with good lumbar (lower back) support and a headrest. Sit with your back straight and keep your feet firmly on the floor or on a footrest. Set your arm rests so your arms form a 90-degree angle and your wrists are straight.

The relationship between arthritis and diabetes goes two ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 47% of U.S. adults with diabetes also have arthritis. People with arthritis face a 61% higher risk of developing diabetes.

Arthritis and diabetes share common risk factors such as obesity, a lack of exercise, and age. A 2019 review of studies found that people with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop OA, even if they don’t have overweight.

One reason is that high blood sugar may lead to a constant state of low grade inflammation in the body. It also contributes to the creation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) — substances that help trigger the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines in the joints.

Getting regular blood sugar checks and treating diabetes are important for avoiding complications such as nerve and eye damage. There’s also some evidence that treating diabetes might protect your joints by slowing the progression of OA.

If you do start to develop arthritis symptoms such as joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, see a doctor or rheumatologist. The damage from arthritis is usually progressive, meaning the longer you wait to seek treatment, the more destruction that can occur to the joint.

A doctor may be able to suggest treatments or lifestyle interventions that can slow the progress of your arthritis and preserve your mobility.

If you don’t already have a rheumatologist, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.

What is the main cause of arthritis?

There are hundreds of forms of arthritis.

Different forms of arthritis have different causes. Some (like rheumatoid arthritis) may be caused by an autoimmune response, while others (like reactive arthritis) may be caused by an infection.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis and occurs when tissues in the joint start to break down. It’s unknown why this process begins.

Can arthritis be prevented?

You can decrease the risk of developing arthritis by modifying risk factors that can be controlled. Some steps include:

  • losing weight if you have overweight or obesity
  • protecting your joints from injury
  • seeing a doctor if your joints are swollen and red
  • stopping smoking, if you smoke
  • making sure your workplace is safe, free of fall hazards, and has the right amount of space, equipment, and tools to safely do the job

Some risk factors, like having a family history, can’t be changed.

How can you stop arthritis?

It’s not always possible to stop arthritis, but you can slow the progression of OA by maintaining a balanced lifestyle. This includes:

  • maintaining a balanced weight
  • exercising
  • protecting your joints
  • controlling your blood sugar

It’s not always possible to prevent arthritis. There are hundreds of different types of arthritis, each with their own causes and risk factors.

In some cases, it’s possible to modify risk factors by losing weight, exercising, and quitting smoking (if you smoke). Other risk factors like family history can’t be changed.

If you’re concerned about your risk of developing arthritis, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional.

Read this article in Spanish.