I’ve had conversations with three different people this week that have all started like this: “I don’t know why, but since my activity level has changed, I just feel stiff and creaky. Once I’m twenty minutes into a workout, it’s fine, but just going through my day, my shoulders/knees/hips/ankles hurt in a way they never have before.”
This. Makes. Complete. Sense. And it doesn’t mean you’re getting “old.” It doesn’t mean your body is breaking down. It doesn’t mean you’re destined for a life of pain from now on. Friends, it’s time to talk about one of my favorite physical mechanisms: Synovial Fluid.
To take it back to basics, synovial fluid is a thick, viscous fluid that exists to one degree or another within most of the joints of our body, including ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Y’know, the parts that most likely creak and hurt.
Its primary function is to lubricate our joints and provide cushioning and shock absorption - basically, to make the joint run smoothly. Think of it as WD40 on an old door hinge. It also carries nutrients to and waste products away from cartilage, an important mechanism in maintaining cartilage health.
Being something of a liquid, synovial fluid flows to fill all of the spaces in our joints. (As a side note - this is how joint cracking happens! If you move a joint quickly enough, air fills the space before the synovial fluid gets there, creating an air bubble that “bursts” and makes your clicking or cracking sound.) It coats the cartilage, which is what we want it to do - but it also, if the joint is not in motion, settles into all the microcavities and irregularities in articular cartilage, like being absorbed into a sponge.
Once we start moving any particular joint, the synovial fluid is “wrung out” of articular cartilage and begins to do its job of making movement easier.
If you are someone who, pre-COVID, moved around a lot: you worked as a movement professional, or outdoors, or as a teacher, or even in an office setting where you frequently walked to the breakroom/bathroom/water cooler/a colleague’s cubicle, you were moving frequently
enough in your daily life that you probably didn’t notice the impact of settling and wringing out of synovial fluid in your joints.
But if you’re now working from home, where you’re primarily sitting still, no longer regularly climbing stairs, and the only movement you get is when you specifically make time to workout? Yeah, you’re going to notice it a bit more.
The good news is that there’s a simple solution: adding a little more regular, full-body movement to your day. Find or create a 10-minute yoga routine to start your mornings. Set an alarm to get out of your seat and take a few laps around your living room every hour. Or try this 5-move, band-only full body mobility set a couple times a day.
Of course, synovial fluid is not the only reason why you may be experiencing pain. As we've all transitioned to more remote and computer-based work, and are spending more time seated and hunched over, we're creating or exacerbating new, contrasting points of muscle inhibition and tightening. As our hip flexors get tighter from sitting on our couches all evening, our low backs are stretched and weakened. As you spend time typing or on your phone, the pectorals contract and tighten, and the upper back rounds, leaving us hunched forward. For many of us, this may be the first time that movement hasn't been baked into our daily lives - so it may be the first time we're experiencing the chronic effects of being mostly sedentary.
Finding a way to bring movement back into your life can counter so much of the pain from misalignment that our new lifestyles are creating - and building the habit of purposeful movement with a simple routine like the one above is step one.