Cold joints can stress a body.
If you’re a serious athlete, you don’t let winter hold you back. You still run — whether it’s on concrete or on a carpeted indoor track. You still pedal, even if it’s just on a spin bike at the gym. You stay consistent with your workouts, building strength and endurance until competition time comes around again.
But there’s one important thing you must add when the weather turns cold — and if you don’t do it, you can double the stress you put on your joints. They will wear out much faster. Instead of being in your athletic prime, you’ll be in pain. You may even need surgery to fix a problem that you can actually prevent with one simple exercise: warming up your joints in cold weather before you get physical with them.
A joint is where two bones meet. The soft tissue, bone cartilage and ligaments that make up a joint can usually stand up to the heavy wear and tear of an active lifestyle, but only if they move without much friction. Just like a car engine, the best way to prevent friction in the human body is with sufficient lubrication. Of course, human joints don’t use petroleum oil. Our lubrication is synovial fluid, a thick substance with the consistency of egg white. Most of the joints in the human body are synovial joints; which is to say that under optimum conditions, bones with moving joints — like the knee, elbow, fingers, toes, ankle, neck and so on — don’t rub together. Synovial fluid provides a slippery surface for the bone ends, so that they don’t rub together and the cartilage doesn’t wear away.
When we’re young, synovial fluid is produced in copious amounts. But as we get older, the body gets more conservative. Joints have to be stimulated to produce lubrication. The stimulation is, of course, movement. That’s why you may feel a bit of stiffness in your knees or hips when you first begin a treadmill workout. After a short period of movement, the stiffness goes away because the joint is now warmed, and synovial fluid has begun flowing.
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The big problem in winter is that many active people — you may be one of them — move less. In addition, we’re exposed to cold temperatures, even if it’s just getting out of the car to walk into the gym. The joints stiffen. They become a lot less flexible.
As an athlete, you already know how important it is to warm up before starting any strenuous activity. You know that warm muscles move faster and are capable of a lot more force. But the benefits of warming up your joints get a lot less publicity, even though it may be even more important to get joints well lubricated before putting them under stress. If you go from the cold outdoors onto an indoor basketball court and start forcefully throwing without warming up your shoulders, those bone surfaces are going to rub on each other. Stiff ligaments will pull, causing microscopic tissue tears that have a lasting limitation on flexibility. Why lower your athletic longevity when it’s so easy to make it last longer?
Since movement is what stimulates the production of synovial lubrication, plan on spending at least 10 minutes warming up by gently moving every joint in your body. Wiggle your fingers and toes, turn your wrists and ankles, crouch into a squat, bend and flex your arms, move your shoulders and rotate your core to warm your spine. Since everyone is different, you may have certain body areas that take more time to warm up, especially in places where you’ve previously been injured.
But if you take the time to warm your joints in winter, you’ll stimulate even more production of this vital fluid, and you’ll be able to stay active, with fewer joint problems, for your whole life.
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