Here’s what really happens to your back and joints when you turn 30

I turned 30 in January…

No big deal, right?

I mean, it’s a milestone birthday, for sure.

But, it’s not like I turned 21, or 40… or 60 for that matter. I don’t feel old, and I don’t feel young. Well… I didn’t until I started noticing a few things.

  1. I make old man noises when I sit down (or when I try and stand up) – you know the noises I mean. That low, guttural groan aging men make when they have to put effort into something.
  2. My knees are constantly sore. Especially in the morning, and especially when I have to walk up or down stairs.
  3. I wake up with back and neck pain… every. damn. morning.

I know I sound like a complainer but, to be honest with you, I’ve never really put too much thought into it, that was, until I sat down and wanted to start writing this article.

But, I wanted to know why I feel like my joints are slowly giving out on me now that I’m 30!

I’m not alone either.

A friend once strained her neck while drying her hair. Another did his back when he coughed while reaching up to a high bookshelf.

“This is what happens at our age.” they said, “Your body starts to fall apart.”

“Our age” is early-30s.

Hardly the age I thought I’d be when I’d have to deal with this kind of stuff!

There is some truth to it, though.

Your muscles do start to change in your 30s, says Alan Hayes, a muscle and exercise physiologist at Victoria University.

“You have … peak muscle mass in mid-20s and certainly after that point, by about your mid-30s, they start to decline.

“But if you’re that age and just blaming your body, that’s a bit of a cop out.” he adds.

James Fell, a sports scientist at the University of Tasmania, says there’s probably no reason to attribute such muscular niggles to age until your 50s.

Professor Hayes thinks it’s even higher: “I don’t think you should do that until you’re in your 70s.”

So, if I can’t blame my age, why does it feel like my body is already failing me?

Scientists know that, as we age, it takes longer to bounce back from injury than it once did.

A 3D illustration of a nerve cell under a microscope

Some posit that it’s something called cell exhaustion, others maintain that less hormonal changes makes muscle repair take much longer, while some argue that as we age, our body’s inflammatory response to injury is elevated.

It could of course be a cocktail of all three.

While the cause is still uncertain, one thing is sure; when you sustain an injury, anticipate devoting more time to rest and recovery than you have in the past (a.k.a. Be kind to your body!).

So, joint and back pain is somewhat of an inevitability for most of the population, but what is “normal”?

Age 30 to 50

What’s normal:

Occasional neck or back ache on waking; back stiffness after driving for more than two hours; some aching in the legs after walking for 30 minutes to an hour; needing to move around after an hour of sitting on a hard chair.

What’s not not:

Intense pain in one or more joints after carrying shopping; difficulty or discomfort getting into a low car or out of a seat.

“Having any one of these symptoms is a sign your joints or back are suffering early signs of degenerative change,” says Tim Allardyce of the British Osteopathic Association. “This may be through injury or a sedentary lifestyle. Poor posture is a contributing factor.”

Obesity increases the risk of osteoarthritis by up to 15 times, says Arthritis Research UK. 

Get the years back:

Invest in a natural joint care supplement which can help manage pain and reduce inflammation which can often be the cause of pain in the first place.

Check your posture if you spend a long time doing a particular task, such as being hunched over a laptop.

Whatever your exercise, invest in professionally fitted shoes, says physiotherapist Sammy Margo. This will help minimise stress on your joints.

Excessive repetitive movements, such as long-distance running, may lead to injuries and a greater risk of joint problems.

Age 50 to 70

What’s normal:

Aches and pains when changing your sheets; discomfort or restriction in the neck while checking the blind spot in a car; back ache when sitting for long periods; stiffness or aching in the legs or back when walking between 30 minutes and an hour.

What’s not:

Joint pain that wakes you up in the night; being unable to turn your neck at all to check a blind spot due to stiffness or pain; avoiding low chairs and sofas due to knee, hip or back pain; intense joint or back pain after walking.

From 50 onward the muscles, ligaments and tendons are not as strong and wear and tear really begins to set in, Allardyce says.

However, he adds, this should not normally make daily life more difficult, so if you are struggling, your joints are ageing prematurely.

Get the years back:

Stretching will help ease everyday movements such as walking and carrying the shopping, Margo says.

Try beginner’s yoga or tai chi. “There’s also evidence that omega-3, 6 and 9 may have an anti-inflammatory effect and help joint pain,” she says.

Age 70+

What’s normal:

Knee pain while going down stairs; needing a rest after 20 minutes of walking; needing to swap shopping bags for trolleys; preferring upright chairs to sofas; needing to use your arms to push up from a chair.

What’s not:

Shortness of breath while walking and carrying light bags over a short distance; being unable to get up from a chair without help.

Wear and tear on the knees, which bear most of the body’s weight, is common at this age and is the cause of pain when walking up and down stairs or carrying things, Allardyce says.

He says any shortness of breath over a short distance should be investigated as it could be a sign of cardiovascular disease.

Get the years back:

If you have trouble getting up from a chair unassisted, leg-strengthening exercises are vital to maintain an independent lifestyle, Allardyce says.

“As you get older, your appetite reduces and the body dehydrates more easily, so drink plenty of water and keep up your intake as food provides energy.”

In short, a lot of it is due to activity — or lack thereof.

“There’s no doubt that the sedentary lifestyle aspect is a major contributor to the injuries that we’re going to sustain,” Professor Hayes says.

When you sit at a desk for hours on end, for instance, your hip-flexor muscles, which connect your spine, pelvis and upper legs, remain constantly shortened, Dr Fell says.

“And then you get up out of your chair and expect them to function normally, and you injure them or other a111ssociated structures.”

With being sedentary comes a greater risk of obesity. Fat can work its way between muscle fibers, further decreasing strength, and into bone.

The “your body falls apart in your 30s” idea probably also has something to do with that particular life stage, Bond University sports scientist Peter Reaburn says.

“There’s marriage. There’s children. There’s career focus. Your ability time-wise, motivation-wise, stress-wise to be able to train as you did as a youngster is compromised,” he says.

Pregnancy, too, can make women more susceptible to injury, even after they’ve given birth, Dr Fell says.

“If you’ve had children, you’ve had serious changes to your centre of gravity, your ligaments,” he says.

Pregnancy elicits release of a hormone called relaxin, which (among other effects) causes ligaments to become more stretchy.

“They can remodel [back to normal after the child is born] but can also be permanently stretched, increasing the risk of injury,” Dr Fell says.

Use it or lose it!

Three things tend to happen to our muscles as we age, Professor Reaburn says.

“The first is muscle strength and power decline linearly from around 30 or 35 to 50 years, then faster between 50 and 60 or 65, then drop off after 65.”

You see a similar pattern with muscle mass, he adds.

The third key factor is our fast-twitch muscle fibres, which are used for rapid movements like sprinting or jumping, also shrink — even in lifelong sprint athletes.

“Non-athletes experience a much steeper decline [across all three],” Professor Reaburn says.

There is some good news. Resistance or weight training can help slow muscle loss.

Muscles’ ability to adapt doesn’t disappear, Dr Fell says — even in very elderly people.

“Ninety-year-old women still have the ability to put on muscle with resistance training,” he says.

Professor Hayes says it’s never too late to start resistance training, if you’ve not already.

“Walking is great, running is great, cycling is fabulous, but those things don’t help you to build up your muscle, so you really have to incorporate some resistance training into your daily activities,” he says.

Just remember to up your protein intake to give muscles the materials they need to knit back together, he advises.

As for me?

I’m on a regime of back-strengthening exercises and stretches.

About the Author

Ben Hogg is Marketing Manager at the New Zealand Health Food Company. He is also a qualified personal trainer, and has is own online Personal Training company which he runs in his spare time.

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