Working to take care of what you’ve got

The optimal design for the human frame given what we do on a daily basis and how long we currently live is not much like what we have. We should be much shorter, thicker, more heavily boned and muscled in order to stay optimally active well into our 80s and 90s.

For most of our history, humans rarely lived much past the age of 40, so who knew that we would end up with this dilemma? We are a creature with a heavy head who stands upright, thus compromising our backs, and our legs and feet have bones that are much too slim for the weight they have to bear. We need to get into balance here.

As we age, we lose the natural lubrication of our joints, we lose minerals in our bones and we lose overall muscle mass. So even though our lifespan has improved immeasurably due to improved sanitation, better diet, better medicine and healthcare, without proper care for our structure, we start to lose ground about age 30.

So, here’s a little basic information to help you put the brakes on this situation and live your later years as your best and healthiest.

Bones are dynamic, they grow and are re-shaped throughout our lifespan. This is hopeful! Bone is laid down where it is needed and reabsorbed where it is not needed. In orthopedics, there is a law called Wolff’s law which states just that. Meaning that if you don’t put mechanical stress or demands on your bones, they are reabsorbed.

Think about the astronauts who live at zero gravity for even just a few weeks;they lose massive amounts of calcium from their bones. These same highly conditioned individuals also lose up to a fourth of their muscle mass on longer flights of six months duration. The same thing happens with people who do not exercise. Have you ever had your limb put in a cast? Right! We need to use it or lose it, but we also need to use it right because overuse or mindless use leads to injury and inability to exercise.

Cartilage is the smooth glistening coating for the ends of articulating bones that with a single drop of synovial fluid gives a co-efficient of friction 20 to 30 times that of gliding on ice. A pretty smooth ride — right? Articular cartilage is composed of collagen — a tough, fibrous, rubbery and elastic tissue. Articular cartilage doesn’t have a blood supply, so its nourishment comes from the synovial fluid — a process that is enhanced by movement. “Devotion to motion is de potion.”

When cartilage becomes damaged or thin you have the number one medical complaint in the western World — osteoarthritis. Water accounts for 65 to 80 percent of the wet weight of articular cartilage and it is this moisture that allows cartilage to resist compression.

Drying out causes the cartilage to be less flexible, and increases wear and tear. You truly need to drink more water than you think you would ever need. The old eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily is passé. To really figure out how much water you need, take your body weight in pounds, divide by two and that’s how many ounces of water you need each day. Makes sense, right? Bigger people need more water!

Another form of collagen is the meniscus — such as the two menisci around your knee. Each C-shaped meniscus is a shock absorber, that also adds to the stability, load distribution, and joint lubrication of the joint. Maybe you might know someone who has had some difficultly with their menisci and underwent arthroscopic surgery?

Collagen also comprises the ligaments, those thick tough bands that anchor the bones at the joint. Ligaments allow for flexibility but they also bind the joint tightly providing stability. Commonly sprained ligaments are the medial collateral ligament at the knee and the lateral ligament complex at the ankle.

Joints that have relatively few or weak ligaments such as the shoulder allow for greater movement in more directions. This also can lead to trouble because all joints have a definite limit on how far they can or should move in any one direction- exceed your limit and the supporting ligament will tear. Practicing flexibility and range of motion exercises in order to stay limber is an absolute imperative in order to age well.

Lastly, besides bursa (which are little fluid-filled sacs that are located around joints where there is friction between the tendon and the bone and are part of the frame’s cushioning system), we have tendons themselves.

Tendons pull on bones to initiate movement. They are even less likely to stretch than ligaments. Tendons range in size and strength from the mighty Achilles tendon at the base of the calf muscle to the fine tendons that run through the carpal tunnel in the wrist.

Many an orthopedic surgeon has stated it is better to break a bone than rip a ligament or a tendon. Bone heals without scarring and tendons and ligament are never quite the same. They scar and they have limited blood supply so they take a longtime healing.

The muscles that we most concern ourselves with in orthopedic exercise are striated skeletal muscles. And that brings us back to balance.

Unless you develop your muscles strategically and in balance, you set yourself up for distortions that will pull your joints out of balance as well. A balanced workout works opposing muscle groups, is progressive, strategic, and allows for rest, as well as work.


Dr. Jane Riley, Ed.D., is a certified personal fitness trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at, 212-8119 cell/text and


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