The long evenings and warm temperatures (well, we can hope!) encourage many of us to be more active over summer. It’s a great time to take up a new activity, improve our fitness, or lose weight.
One of our most popular summer sports is, of course, tennis. Tennis is a fantastic activity: it builds strength, improves cardiovascular fitness, can help to strengthen our bones, improves coordination, and gets us exercising outside in the sun (for our vitamin D!). Another thing that’s great about tennis is that it has a social element too – giving us one-to-one time with friends and helping us meet other people, which is so often lacking in today’s technology-driven world.
However, tennis can be tough on our joints, especially for those who are not used to impact sports. And it’s not just the older generations who suffer!
Fortunately, there’s plenty we can do to look after our joints naturally, both over the summer and year-round. Here are our top foods and supplement suggestions that can help keep you in action on the courts.
- Get plenty of vitamin C
Vitamin C is not just important for immunity. It’s also vital for our body to make collagen, which in turn is used to make cartilage – the flexible material that helps to cushion our joints. When cartilage wears away, as in osteoarthritis (‘wear and tear’ arthritis), joints can become very painful.
So where should you get your vitamin C? Ideally not by drinking fruit juices, which contain lots of quickly absorbed sugar (even if it’s just natural fruit sugar) and can end up causing more problems for our health. It’s best to get vitamin C from a range of whole vegetables and fruit. Some of the best sources are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, red cabbage, pepper, kiwi fruits and blackcurrants. Aim for at least the recommended 5 servings of vegetables and fruit per day – although the ideal is more like 7 to 9! The antioxidants in vegetables and fruit also have anti-inflammatory activity, helping to keep pain in check.
Vitamin C supplements can also be supportive for your joints if you struggle to get enough through food.
- Eat oily fish
Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring contain the all-important omega-3 fats known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). As well as being vital for our eyes, brain and heart, these omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory activity, and possibly direct pain-relieving activity too [1, 2, 3]. This means eating oily fish could be helpful to manage or reduce joint pain, and even prevent inflammation that causes sore joints after exercise.
Don’t like fish? A daily fish oil supplement can be a good alternative.
- Avoid pro-inflammatory fats
Just as it can be helpful to increase your anti-inflammatory omega-3s, it’s equally important to avoid pro-inflammatory fats – the ones that can worsen inflammation. Unfortunately, these are the fats that we’ve long been told are good for us: vegetable oils. In general anything labelled ‘vegetable oil’ is bad news, and other general cooking oils such as sunflower oil or rapeseed oil. Margarines and spreads made with vegetable oils can be even worse because they contain hydrogenated vegetable oils – oils that have been turned into a solid fat by bubbling hydrogen through them. A lot of processed foods also contain vegetable oils, from cakes to breads to ready meals: another reason to eat more ‘real’ foods and ditch processed foods – especially those that come with a long list of ingredients on the label!
- Eat magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium is an important mineral for our muscles and bones. It’s also been found that having good levels of magnesium in our body may help to lower inflammation .
So eating magnesium-rich foods can be another good step towards better joint health. These include green vegetables, seeds and nuts, beans and pulses, and whole grains including oats, rye and buckwheat.
- Turmeric and ginger
These traditional spices are not only delicious in curries and Asian food; they also have anti-inflammatory activity. Turmeric in particular (or its active component curcumin) has been shown in many studies to help reduce inflammation, and specifically to help to manage joint pain in knee arthritis [5, 6, 7]. Ginger may also help to reduce joint pain and inflammation .
Turmeric and ginger can be used every day in cooking. You can also use either of them to make tea: chop or grate fresh ginger or turmeric root and pour on boiling water (although watch out with fresh turmeric, as it can stain everything!). Try making a ‘turmeric latte’ with turmeric powder – it’s become the drink of the moment among those looking for a healthier alternative to coffee. You can also just buy turmeric or ginger tea bags. Or if you have a juicer at home, try making fresh ginger juice and drinking a shot every day – it really packs a punch! Another alternative is to pickle ginger – delicious!
If you struggle to get a daily dose of turmeric or ginger in your food, or you want a more convenient option, try turmeric or curcumin supplements.
- Bone broth / collagen
Bone broth is another traditional food that’s become popular as a ‘health food’ again. This is because bones are actually very rich in nutrients, and so properly prepared bone broth (made by simmering animal or fish bones for up to 24 hours or longer) is a natural, easy-to-absorb source of these nutrients, including vital minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Bone broth also provides natural collagen, primarily in the form of gelatin. As mentioned above, collagen is a building block for the cartilage that helps to protect our joints.
Taking collagen in supplement form may also be supportive for joint health. A study found that taking collagen over 6 months reduced joint pain in a group of athletes .
If you’ve ever looked into taking supplements for joint health, you’ve probably heard of glucosamine. Glucosamine is a building-block for making cartilage and synovial fluid in the joints. Taking glucosamine supplements has been found in some studies to be helpful for knee pain, especially in those with a prior injury or with osteoarthritis in the knee [10, 11]. Some studies do not show benefits, however. It’s worth noting too that glucosamine has been found to be effective with doses of at least 1,500mg a day, and that it may take three months or more to work fully. So ideally, this is one to start taking in the spring if you want it to help keep you active over the summer!
- Devil’s claw herbal remedy
Devil’s claw is a traditional herb used for relief of joint pain, as well as muscle pain and backache. Like turmeric and ginger, devil’s claw is thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect. It could be a good choice to help relieve pain more quickly, compared to the longer-term protective effect of collagen or glucosamine.
- Arnica gel
If you experience muscle or joint pain after activity, try a topical arnica gel for additional support. Arnica gels are traditionally used to help with joint pain as well as muscle pain, stiffness, strains and bruising. In one study on a group of people with arthritis in their hands, using an arnica gel was even found to be as effective as ibuprofen gel for reducing pain .
- Calder PC. n−3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and inflammatory diseases. Am J Clin Nutr June 2006 vol. 83 no. 6 S1505-1519S
- Corder KE et al. Effects of Short-Term Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation on Markers of Inflammation after Eccentric Strength Exercise in Women. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Feb 23;15(1):176-83.
- Goldberg RJ, Katz J. A meta-analysis of the analgesic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain. Pain. 2007 May;129(1-2):210-23.
- Dibaba DT et al. Dietary magnesium intake is inversely associated with serum C-reactive protein levels: meta-analysis and systematic review. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Apr;68(4):510-6.
- Aggarwal BB et al. Curcumin-free turmeric exhibits anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities: Identification of novel components of turmeric. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Sep;57(9):1529-42.
- He Y et al. Curcumin, inflammation, and chronic diseases: how are they linked? Molecules. 2015 May 20;20(5):9183-213.
- Henrotin Y, Priem F, Mobasheri A. Curcumin: a new paradigm and therapeutic opportunity for the treatment of osteoarthritis: curcumin for osteoarthritis management. Springerplus. 2013 Dec;2(1):56.
- Bartels EM et al. Efficacy and safety of ginger in osteoarthritis patients: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2015 Jan;23(1):13-21.
- Clark KL et al. 24-Week study on the use of collagen hydrolysate as a dietary supplement in athletes with activity-related joint pain. Curr Med Res Opin. 2008 May;24(5):1485-96.
- Braham R et al. The effect of glucosamine supplementation on people experiencing regular knee pain. Br J Sports Med. 2003 Feb;37(1):45-9; discussion 49.
- Herrero-Beaumont G et al. Glucosamine sulfate in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study using acetaminophen as a side comparator. Arthritis Rheum. 2007 Feb;56(2):555-67.
- Cameron M, Chrubasik S. Topical herbal therapies for treating osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 May 31;(5):CD010538.