How Obesity Affects Your Bones and Joints Over Time
If your BMI is higher than 25, it means you’re overweight. If it reaches 30, you’re within the obesity range. Unfortunately, being overweight or obese is a common problem for many people. In the US alone, about 42.4% of people are obese, and this number includes a 9.2% statistic for severe obesity.1
Extra weight in your body puts more pressure on your bones and joints. In this article, we will explore the impact of weight on your bones in aging. We will also consider why joint pain in aging is more common when you’re overweight or obese.
Anatomy 101 – Bones and Joints
What Are Bones and Joints?
You’ve got 206 bones in your body. That’s the normal anatomy for a healthy adult.
Your bones have different shapes: short, long, irregular, sesamoid, and flat.
Your bones are important for giving shape to your body and allowing locomotion2 (movement). Your bones also protect your organs, help with breathing, and support the production of new cells in the bone marrow.
Why Do Bones and Joints Deteriorate Over Time?
Your bones move consistently and daily over many years. The frequency of this movement leads to wear and tear. Additionally, your bone density and general health decline as you age.
A combination of these factors leads to aging bones. When your bones and joints deteriorate, you may start to experience symptoms. This is why joint pain in aging is a relatively common problem.
The Role of Weight in Bone and Joint Health
How much you weigh can significantly impact your bone and joint health. Let’s explore the various ways this can happen.
Body fat can provide padding for your bones
Researchers have looked closely at the connection between body weight and bone health. A research paper published in F1000 Research2 showed that body fat can protect bones by providing padding.
However, body fat can also hinder bone formation
The authors from the study above showed that excess weight causes an increase in fat cell production in the bone marrow. This increase in fat cells reduces the production of osteoblast cells, special cells that form new bones.
Being overweight can cause chronic inflammation
If you’re overweight, your body releases cytokines – chemicals linked to inflammation. Inflammation is a process where your body’s immune system fights harmful invaders.
The constant release of cytokines in an overweight person could eventually lead to chronic inflammation, which can damage your healthy cells. Chronic inflammation also harms your organs and can cause internal scarring or damage at the DNA level.
Obesity can negatively affect your genes
Obesity can also cause some changes to your genes. One research study shows that if you’re obese, you likely have a specific variant, the FTO gene,3 the Fat Mass and Obesity Associated gene.
If you have two copies of this gene, which you inherit from your parents, you’re likely to be programmed to eat more. This is because you’ll have more ghrelin in your blood – often called the “hunger hormone.” As discussed, the more you overeat, the more likely you’ll become overweight, leading to chronic inflammation and loss of osteoblast cells.
An increase in weight can positively affect bone density
Although excess weight causes chronic inflammation and decreased osteoblast production, an increase in weight surprisingly may have a positive impact5 on bone density.
In one scientific paper, researchers discovered that increased weight may positively affect5 bone density, especially when compared to bone models of an underweight person. This can happen because the skeletal system is “adaptive,” meaning a heavier load from an increase in weight can make your bones adapt. However, this positive effect does not apply to extreme deviations from normal weight.
How weight can cause joint pain
Even though bone density can increase among people who have a higher body weight, it doesn’t mean there are no consequences.
Joint pain in aging is actually very common. About 70% of adults between 50 and 80 have joint pain.6 In this age group, 8% have severe pain. There’s a negative connection between weight and joint health. This is due to the pressure and stress that excess weight in your body puts on joints, such as the knee joint.
Why Weight Management Becomes Crucial as You Age
Managing your weight as you age is incredibly important, but we often don’t pay enough attention.
As you know, the older you get, the more changes happen to your body. There are hormonal changes, your skin starts to become wrinkly, and your joints may begin giving you some trouble. Due to the link between aging and weight, implementing early strategies can help reduce the pressure placed on your joints that happens with becoming overweight or obese.
Practical Tips for Weight Management
Diet and exercise are two important ways to manage your weight. Here are some practical tips for weight management:
- Eat a diet with essential nutrients for bone health that also caters to your body’s other needs.
- Exercise regularly to keep excess fat off.
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule and stress management.
- Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Myths and Misconceptions
Several myths exist about bone density that we must bust. And this really starts with the fact that some people believe you cannot do anything about bone deterioration over time.
Yes, it’s true that bone deterioration happens as you age, but there are things you can do to keep your bones and joints healthy, even as you enter your senior years.
Some people believe that obesity cushions your bones. It’s true that it can lower the impact of falls or accidents. However, obesity causes inflammation and other problems that negatively affect bone health.
We’ve gathered expert advice on weight and bones.
J. Sanchez-Sotelo, an orthopedic surgeon7 from Mayo Clinic, says, “Many people lose cartilage as they age, but it does not mean that joint replacement is inevitable.” He also says, “Maintaining a healthy weight is important, as obesity is hard on the joints.”
Eric Matteson, MD, who is part of the Rheumatology Division at Mayo Clinic, explains,8 “Weight plays an important role in joint stress, so when people are very overweight, it puts stress on their joints, especially their weight-bearing joints like the knees and the hips.”
Resources and Tools
Weight Management Apps and Tools
Many apps can help you manage your weight. These weight management apps can be installed right on your smartphone, so you can keep them with you no matter where you go.
You’ll also be able to find a couple of bone health tools that can help you preserve healthy bones and joints as you grow older.
Here are a couple of really great apps that you can try:
- PlateJoy – Excellent for planning your meals and creating grocery lists.
- MyFitnessPal – A comprehensive app that tracks calories and more.
- FatSecret – An app that helps with calorie counting and meal logging while offering educational resources on weight loss topics.
- Wellen – A tool designed to help you do exercises that improve symptoms of osteoporosis and other bone-related problems.
These apps are easy to use, and you can register for them quickly. Be sure to look for apps that work with your phone or tablet. This will make things more convenient when you’re traveling and want to keep using the tools.
Bones and joints are fundamental for your body to function and move properly. Over time, they can start to deteriorate. While this is natural, don’t think it means you must get a joint replacement as you age.
Instead, learn about things like the impact of weight on your bones in aging. When you use strategies for weight management in aging, you can reduce the stress that excess body fat can put on joints and bones while maintaining a healthy body.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Overweight & Obesity Statistics . National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published December 13, 2018.
- FTO FTO alpha-ketoglutarate dependent dioxygenase [Homo sapiens (human)] – NCBI. Nih.gov. Published 2019.
- Iwaniec UT, Turner RT. Influence of Body Weight on Bone Mass, Architecture, and Turnover. The Journal of endocrinology. 2016;230(3):R115-R130.
- Madson R. Mayo Clinic expert offers tips on how to keep joints healthy as you age. Mayo Clinic News Network. Published October 11, 2022.