One of the leading causes for hesitation around running comes from arthritis. We’ve been told that the high impact will increase our risk. We’ve been warned that older adults should stop and hit water aerobics instead. We’ve been instructed that running is a no-go for the knees. Essentially, it’s been understood that running and an elevated risk of arthritis are synonymous…and there’s no getting around it.
Well, I’m happy to now report that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon researching the literature, it’s clear that the experts have made a unified decision in favor of ‘high-impact’ endurance activity. The best part? Running actually improves the outcomes of arthritis to the point where those doing no physical exercise are much worse off.
We’ve been fed misinformation that impact activity is going to exacerbate arthritis, but ironically, us avoiding these activities is the major factor leading to complications. To bring this point home, let’s dive into some research so you can see just how backward we’ve had it all along.
Arthritis: The #1 Running Myth
Before we begin, let me be clear. Everyone’s case is going to be different. There are certain factors such as age and previous injuries that will naturally elevate one’s risk of arthritis. If you have a history of this condition or have other health complications, please (please) check in with your health provider before moving forward. Like with many health problems, there are inevitable risks. Fortunately, we now know that a safe, individualized running program is not one of them!
In one large epidemiological review (752 runners), it was discovered that running significantly reduced osteoarthritis and hip replacement risk. Interestingly, one of the leading causes of this discovery was the association between running and a lower BMI (body mass index). Strong links were discovered between OA and old age and/or obesity, but it was found that running attenuated the risk of each. Additionally, injury history was a high risk factor for OA, but running is well known to improve recovery if a proper graded exposure approach is utilized. This typically involves the help of a kinesiologist or physiotherapist.
It may seem backwards, but if you’re a healthy individual who wants to reduce risk of arthritis, it’s time to lace up your shoes and start running.
In another study, one of 675 marathon runners, it was proven that participants had lower OA risk factors than the general US public. Even in the most extreme cases, such as those running 100 miles per week, it is still more likely that a sedentary individual would stumble upon arthritis. In this particular research article, age, family history, and surgical history independently predicted an increased risk for hip and knee arthritis. Notice how running isn’t on the list?
In one meta-analysis document of 114,829 participants, it was found that sedentary individuals sit at a 10.2% risk of OA, while recreational runners are at an extremely low 3.5%. This is a huge finding that should direct the future of arthritis management, and even more so, arthritis prevention for youth and young adults. We’re safe to move through impact activities!
“Being a runner in mid-life may mitigate risk factors for knee OA in terms of knee mechanics and muscle function.” — Hafer et. al (2019)
Running Is Medicine for Your Joints
You may be asking yourself, how are all of these results possible? Doesn’t high-impact, endurance sports like running naturally cause more inflammation and thus an elevated risk of osteoarthritis? To answer that, let’s look at 3 ways that we’ve misunderstood the sport of running (kindly delivered by Physiotutors):
1) While the peak load per stride in running is quite high, the average load accumulated per stride is surprisingly low (similar to walking).
2) Due to the viscoelastic nature of cartilage, the internal strains induced by high peak loads in running are also relatively low. Your cartilage is much more resilient than you may think.
3) Most importantly, living cartilage in a healthy individual will adapt (become conditioned) to withstand the greatest stress it frequently sustains. In other words, running will force your tissues to become stronger and better equipped to handle all activities of life!
As if this wasn’t enough, a cross-sectional study in 2017 proves that running actually lowers inflammation in knee joints! The author closes with these magical words: “In those without osteoarthritis, running does not appear detrimental to the knees”.
Quick Note: All of this data hinges on one important factor — that you’re running wisely. Like with any sport, if you aren’t approaching it the right way, injuries will be inevitable. Now that we know of running’s powerful influence on reducing OA, it’s key that we look at 5 top tips to fostering a healthy exercise habit.
If you’re new to running, seek out a qualified coach or personal trainer.
Always do a proper warm-up and cool-down that includes mobility work and a gradual elevation/decrease of heart rate. This is especially key in those winter months!
More isn’t always better. Ensure you’re running within your capabilities and never make more than a 10% jump in volume per week.
Invest in a proper pair of running shoes. Don’t use any old sneaker or trainer!
If you have a history of OA or other injuries, it may be smart to meet halfway. Try running on a track or chip trail to reduce impact.
If you can pull these five tips off, you’ll be in great shape to avoiding osteoarthritic complications!
Research now shows us that ‘the #1 risk associated with running’ is nothing more than a big myth. What a relief! We now know that running is safe and can even help you prevent osteoarthritis and improve long-term outcomes. What we once viewed as a hindrance has now turned into a powerful medication that we should widely prescribe to every appropriate candidate. Your best antidote against this debilitating condition may very well be lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement.