As we age our joints and muscles naturally begin to start showing signs of weakness and deterioration. This is part of the natural cycle of life, and completely normal. In many cases, however, these symptoms begin manifesting before we are ready to start limiting our lifestyle. Supplements such as hydrolyzed collagen, diets low in inflammatory foods, and certain mobility exercises can help stave off this early progression of decreasing mobility.
For older adults, both natural wear and tear on the body as well as injury, like from a fall, can lead to mobility issues as you age – problems walking and standing which potentially strip away your self-reliance, independence, and sense of well being. Signs you may be experiencing mobility problems include:
- Trouble standing or walking for more than 10 minutes
- Leg or foot pain when standing or walking
- Frequent falling or tripping
- Difficulty balancing (dizziness)
- Leg weakness which has caused you to stop bearing weight
- Inability to travel up stairs or inclines
- Fatigue after a relatively short distance
While mobility aids can support and empower people with walking and standing difficulty to some extent, diet can play a very important role as well. The body has a miraculous way of repairing itself, and boosting its healing powers with food can be natural and effective. Looking at mobility as a cohesive interaction of balance, strength, coordination, and flexibility all working in tandem to keep you upright and walking, take a look at what foods support each:
Building up strength requires the growth and maintenance of muscle and connective tissues, as well as continuously sufficient bone density. Many people know that eating protein is important to muscle health, but what sources of proteins have the greatest effect? Red meat is high in protein and iron content but should be eaten in moderation as high consumption has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, coronary disease, certain cancers, and death .
Other meats including poultry (chicken, duck, turkey) and fish (tuna, sardines, mackerel, etc) contain appreciable amounts of protein, while non-meat alternatives that still contain animal protein include dairy, eggs, and whey. Plant-based proteins, like in grains, nuts, and legumes, can be just as potent in the body, and in fact, one 2012 study found that replacing animal proteins with plant proteins effectively lowers mortality rates .
When it comes to bone strength, calcium is where it is at. Strong legs power strong mobility, but your body actually doesn’t have the ability to produce calcium, so large amounts must be consumed to keep bone density at optimal levels. Low-fat milk, yogurt, kale, broccoli, and beans are just a handful of calcium-rich foods worthy of integrating into your diet.
While the textbook definition of physical balance might be the ability to stay upright when standing and moving, an important component is the ‘even distribution of weight.’ In order to maintain balance, your brain takes in cues from your eyes, muscles, and joints, and utilizes nerve sensors in the inner ear to recognize your spatial position in relation to the force of gravity pulling on you.
Carrying around extra weight places added stress on internal joints, bones, and muscles, and especially when you have extra padding in the midsection, can also disturb your center of gravity, pulling it forward and alternating your sense of balance. Even the best cane for balance problems won’t completely be able to do the job of keeping you balanced if your center of gravity shifts due to weight issues. A 2013 study revealed that an increase in body mass index resulted in a poorer performance in standing speed and walking balance tests among older adults , a clear indicator of mobility problems.
Managing a healthy weight means fine-tuning a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and routine exercise. Whole grains, lean proteins, lots of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats can go a long way to helping you get to and manage a weight which lowers your risk for diabetes, obesity, and other diseases which can negatively impact your balance and mobility.
Eating for your brain health promotes strong coordination, or the ability for all your body parts to work together effectively. Did you know that while your brain technically finishes “growing” in your mid-20s, it actually continues to update, adapt, and restructure as you learn new things, have new experiences, and make new memories? This is known as brain plasticity. Strong neural connections help combat the effects of aging and promote stronger coordination, critical thinking, brain plasticity, and the coordination needed for strong mobility.
Strengthening the brain’s ability for cells to communicate with each other and for messages to be sent and received from the rest of the body is possible with diet. In addition to fighting inflammation and staving off heart disease, Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and most recently, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), are believed to exhibit neuroprotective properties  helping prevent cognitive decline as seen in dementia and Alzheimer’s. Believed to enhance memory and behavioral function as well, Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in foods including wild salmon, flaxseed oil, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds, and egg yolks.
Loose, limber muscles promote more fluid mobility and reinforce your ability to self-correct when you trip or are knocked off balance. Largely a product of pliable muscles and naturally-loose joints, flexibility encompasses your ability to achieve full range of motion without pain, strain, or injury.
A common source of joint discomfort is inflammation associated with arthritis and other joint diseases, which limits the range of motion and stifles flexible reflexes. Incorporating inflammation-fighting foods and beverages into everyday diet may aid this pain and discomfort and make walking and standing easier. Ginger root and turmeric  have been shown to soothe joint inflammation, as well as foods including fatty fish, green tea, garlic, broccoli and Brussel sprouts.
Eating for mobility means enhancing your diet to prioritize strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility-boosting foods. For older adults, this is especially important, and with a little planning and smart shopping, completely feasible too. Quality supplements like collagen can help increase joint health, and using supporting medical equipment like ergonomic canes can help reduce the overall impact on critical joints. These are just several of the many considerations that can be made to help support mobility as we age.
- U.S. National Institutes of Health. “Risk in Red Meat?” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2 July 2015, www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/risk-red-meat
- Song, Mingyang. “Association of Protein Intake With Mortality.” JAMA Internal Medicine, American Medical Association, 1 Oct. 2016, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2540540.
- Hardy, Rebecca, et al. “Body Mass Index, Muscle Strength and Physical Performance in Older Adults from Eight Cohort Studies: The HALCyon Programme.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 20 Feb. 2013, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0056483.
- Dyall, Simon C. “Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids and the Brain: a Review of the Independent and Shared Effects of EPA, DPA and DHA.” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A., 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4404917/.
- Ramadan, G, and O El-Menshawy. “Protective Effects of Ginger-Turmeric Rhizomes Mixture on Joint Inflammation, Atherogenesis, Kidney Dysfunction and Other Complications in a Rat Model of Human Rheumatoid Arthritis.” International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23773648.