Osteoarthritis (OA) was once considered a disorder in which joints simply wore out – the unavoidable result of a long and active life. But recent research has shown that OA is a complex process with many causes and may even be more than one disease. It is not an inevitable part of aging experts say, but rather the result of a combination of factors, many of which can be modified or prevented. Here is what doctors recommend to reduce the risk of OA or delay its onset.

Maintain A Healthy Weight
Excess weight is one of the biggest risk factors for OA – and for good reason. Extra pounds put additional pressure on weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees. Each pound you gain adds nearly four pounds of stress to your knees and increases pressure on your hips six-fold. Over time, the extra strain breaks down the cartilage that cushions these joints.

But mechanical stress is not the only problem. Fat tissue produces proteins called cytokines that promote inflammation throughout the body. In the joints, cytokines destroy tissue by altering the function of cartilage cells. When you gain weight, your body makes and releases more of these destructive proteins. Unless you are very overweight, losing even a few pounds can reduce joint stress and inflammation, cutting your risk of OA in half.

Control Blood Sugar
The latest research suggests that diabetes, which affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar (glucose), may be a significant risk factor for OA. That's because high glucose levels speed the formation of certain molecules that make cartilage stiffer and more sensitive to mechanical stress. Diabetes can also trigger systemic inflammation that leads to cartilage loss. The newly discovered connection between diabetes and joint damage may help explain why more than half of Americans diagnosed with diabetes also have arthritis.

Get Physical
Physical activity is the best available treatment for OA. It's also one of the best ways to keep joints healthy in the first place. As little as 30 minutes of moderately-intense exercise five times a week helps joints stay limber and strengthens the muscles that support and stabilize your hips and knees. Exercise also strengthens the heart and lungs, lowers diabetes risk and is a key factor in weight control.

You don't have to join a gym or have a formal workout plan to benefit. Walking, gardening – even scrubbing floors – count. But the greatest results come with a consistent and progressive exercise program adjusted for your age, fitness level and the activities you enjoy most.

No matter what type of exercise you choose, listen to your body. If you have pain after a workout that persists more than an hour or two, do less next time and take more breaks. To avoid injury, go slow until you know how your body reacts to a new activity and don't repeat the same exercise every day. If you have a hard time starting or sticking with an exercise program, the Arthritis Foundation's Walk With Ease program can help you reach your goals.

Play It Safe
Because cartilage doesn't heal well, an injured joint is nearly seven times more likely to develop arthritis than one that was never injured. Fractures, dislocations – even ligament tears and strains – can significantly increase the risk of OA, which occurs in about 50 percent of people who experience a traumatic injury.  

Although injuries aren't always avoidable, it pays to protect your joints. If you play sports, wear protective gear, such as joint padding for soccer or hockey. And make sure any baseball field you use has break-away bases. At home or work, use your largest, strongest joints for lifting and carrying and take breaks when you need to. After an injury, maintaining a healthy weight can help guard against further joint damage.

Choose A Healthy Lifestyle
Some risk factors for OA can't be changed. For instance, OA becomes more common as people age, though why this occurs isn't clear. One idea is that the number of cartilage cells simply diminishes over time. Because more women than men develop OA, especially after age 50, lower estrogen levels after menopause may also play a role.

In addition, some people inherit genes that make them more susceptible to OA. In one study, variations in the gene for a cytokine associated with inflammation and cartilage loss doubled the risk of severe arthritis. It's important to remember, though, that arthritis is a multifactorial disorder and simply inheriting a gene doesn't mean you will develop it.

Ultimately, the best defense against any disease, including OA, is a healthy lifestyle. The way you eat, exercise, sleep, manage stress and interact with others, and whether you smoke or drink can have a tremendous influence not just on overall health, but also on the health of your joints.