This Is the #1 Worst Habit for Arthritis Pain, According to a Rheumatologist

Arthritis is an extremely common—and often quite painful—health condition. According to the Arthritis Foundation, it is the leading cause of disability in the United States. While there are a variety of treatment methods, it’s also smart to be proactive and try to avoid anything that might aggravate your arthritis symptoms or cause increased joint pain. Here's everything you need to know about the worst habit for arthritis pain—and other habits that are a close second.

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The Worst Habit for Arthritis Pain

Besides being linked to a wide range of other health issues, living a sedentary lifestyle can be bad for your joints. “One of the biggest misconceptions that we deal with as rheumatologists is the belief that if you exercise, you’re going to make your arthritis worse,” says Dr. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, an Arthritis Foundation Expert Source and Vice Chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Diseases. “That's a common myth that we want to dispel because we think sensible and regular exercise can help your arthritis.”

Husni emphasizes the potential benefits of exercise to those with arthritis and joint pain, as long as you tailor your exercise regimen to your ability and fitness level. “We want people to understand that exercise is good for arthritis in your joints. However, everybody must exercise at levels that are appropriate for them. If your fitness level is lower, you might want to start with aquatic exercises and work your way up to land-based exercise. If you're like me and just sort of a weekend warrior, then we might have to do a gradual program to get up to a regular exercise regimen. And if you're a very high-performing elite athlete, you might need to work with a trainer to make sure you're not overdoing your exercise.”

Other Not-So-Great Habits for People With Arthritis

Maintaining an unhealthy diet

Diet and exercise tend to go hand-in-hand, so it makes sense that eating a lot of unhealthy foods is also not good for arthritis pain. “Foods high in sodium, processed sugars and fats have been associated with weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says Dr. Kathryn Dao, MD, an Associate Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Rheumatology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “With weight gain, the joints have to work harder. For those who have arthritis and are overweight or obese, losing 10 percent of the body weight will reduce pressure to the weight-bearing joints by 40-50 percent.”

Dr. Dao notes that doctors commonly recommend the Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes healthy oils, plant-based foods, and limiting red meat—for those with arthritis. “This diet also has been found to reduce weight, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Additionally, certain types of arthritis may flare with a poor diet. For example, gout flares have been associated with red meats, shellfish, high fructose corn syrup and alcohol.”

Related: The Top Differences Between Rheumatoid and Psoriatic Arthritis, Explained 

Wearing bad shoes

If you have arthritis or experience any kind of joint pain, consider what you put on your feet. “Ill-fitting shoes and high heels may impair the way a person walks and offset the center of gravity, making arthritis pain worse,” says Dr. Dao. “Foot discomfort can translate vertically to pain in the knees, hips and low back. The best shoes for arthritis are ones that provide stability, good arch support and shock absorption.”

Related: Got Plantar Fasciitis? These 25 Pairs of Shoes Can Help Ease Your Pain

Carrying heavy purses or backpacks

Lugging around heavy bags or routinely wearing hefty backpacks can strain your back, but it is also bad for arthritis pain. “Carrying heavy items will cause more stress to the joints, particularly when the weight of the object is not distributed,” says Dr. Dao. “Large purses, bags and backpacks carried on one side of the body may affect the gait and a person’s center of gravity. The uneven distribution of forces will put more pressure on the joints, causing hip bursitis, knee osteoarthritis, neck and low back pain.”

Can Cracking Your Knuckles Cause Arthritis?

It’s a common belief that cracking your knuckles can cause (or worsen) arthritis. Dr. Husni says there’s no official consensus on that because there haven’t been any major research studies comparing the arthritis diagnosis rates of people who crack their knuckles versus those who don’t. “However, we do not recommend cracking your knuckles, because you're stretching your joints out of physiologic range to make that noise, and we just don't like people to do things to their joints that are not normal motion. I don't know if we can say it causes arthritis, but it can cause some joint discomfort and damage over time. We can't imagine doing that repetitively would be good for your overall joint health.”

Next up, find out the most common causes of sudden knee pain.