Is Your Weight Hurting Your Arthritic Knees?


Denise Mann

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It makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it: The more weight you carry around, the greater the pressure it places on your knees.

In fact, being just 10 pounds overweight increases the mechanical force on your knee by 30 to 60 pounds with each step you take. This adds up to the pain, tenderness and stiffness around your knees that can make it harder for you to walk up and down stairs, take your favorite class at the gym, or even keep up with your kids.

The good news is that losing just a small amount of weight can take the load off your knees and help you get back in the game. Losing just one pound results in a fourfold reduction in knee joint load for overweight and obese people with knee osteoarthritis (OA), according to landmark study in Arthritis & Rheumatism. Knee OA is a “wear-and-tear" type of arthritis that often strikes individuals ages 50 and older, but it can happen in your 40s, as well.

Your Weight and Knee OA: The Basics

Besides just making knee OA pain worse, being overweight or obese also increases your risk for developing knee OA in the first place. Overweight women are close to four times more likely to have knee OA and overweight men have five times the risk of developing it. The extra weight causes the cartilage in your knee to degenerate, and there is also some research that tells us that fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals that can contribute to knee OA.

Weight loss and exercise are the best ways to reduce risk of knee OA, relieve some of the symptoms if you already have it and possibly postpone or prevent the need for knee replacement surgery.

Eating Well to Feel Well

There is no one-size-fits all knee OA diet, but many healthy eating principles can help people with knee OA lose weight and feel better. Such nutrition tips include loading up on fruits and vegetables. Whole fruits and veggies are rich in fiber which makes you feel full faster and are also loaded with potent antioxidants that cool inflammation. Half of your plate at each meal should be filled with fruits and vegetables.

Instead of white rice, pasta and bread, fill one-quarter of your plate with whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and oats. Whole grains lower risk for obesity and many of the diseases associated with it including diabetes.

Choose lean proteins such as chicken, seafood and beans and limit red meat which can be high in saturated fat and contribute to inflammation. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna pack a one-two punch against knee OA. They are lean sources of protein which helps with weight loss efforts and they are loaded with inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.

If you are having trouble losing weight on your own, talk to your doctor or a registered dietician to get some advice.

Finding the Right Exercise for You

In addition to watching what you eat, exercise helps you lose weight, which takes pressure off of your knees. Knee-friendly aerobic exercises—activity that is gentle on your knees and joints—include walking and swimming.

Strengthening exercises boost muscle strength, and our muscles protect joints that are affected by arthritis. Talk to your doctor about how often you should exercise to meet your goals and what types of exercises are best for you.

Changing your diet and exercising work more effectively in tandem. One study showed that adults with knee OA who lost 10% of their starting weight had less pain, walked faster, and improved their mobility. These improvements were greatest among participants in a diet and exercise program, compared to those who only changed their diet or started to exercise. Specifically, individuals in the diet-and-exercise group reported a 51% reduction in pain; compared with a 25% pain reduction for people who just followed the diet and a 28% reduction in pain for those who just exercised, the study showed.

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Watch personal stories of how people cope with the pain of knee arthritis.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 14, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Messier SP, Gutekunst DJ, Cralen D et al. Weight loss reduces knee-joint loads in overweight and obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis Arthritis & Rheumatism. 2005; 52(7):2026-2032.
  2. Messier SP, Mihalko SL et al. Effects of intensive diet and exercise on knee joint loads, inflammation, and clinical outcomes among overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis: the IDEA randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2013; 310(12):1263-73.
  3. Arthritis of the knee. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  4. Osteoarthritis diet. Arthritis Foundation.
  5. Benefits of Exercise for Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  6. About choose my plate. Choose My Plate.
  7. Grains. Choose My Plate.
  8. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. American Heart Association.
  9. Role of body weight in osteoarthritis. Johns Hopkins University.

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