Why Running is Good for Your Knees
posted on 5/20/14
(photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock)
One of the most entrenched myths about running is that it "wears out" your knees. Despite several studies over the past two decades proving that this is just not true, the myth persists, especially among non-runners. Fortunately for everyone, it's no longer a valid concern. In fact, running is actually good for your joints.
Joint pain is certainly common. Those who live to age 75 or older have at least a 70% chance of having osteoarthritis (OA) in at least some joints. However there is no evidence to suggest that it's a result of "wear and tear." A joint is not a static, inert hinge that wears down, but rather a dynamic, living system that can respond to stress, adapt and get stronger.
Studies since the 90s have shown that runners do not suffer any higher incidence of OA than non-runners, and exercise improves the symptoms of arthritis without causing further joint damage. In 2001, Benjamin Ebert, M.D., Ph.D. wrote:
"Joints are, in fact, strengthened and modified by exercise. These adaptations explain the utility of physical activity in the treatment of arthritis, and the ability of joints to endure years of running without permanent damage. Ligaments and muscles, which support joints, are strengthened and reinforced by the stresses of athletic activity, improving joint mechanics. The flexibility of muscles, encouraged by exercise, can also aid the mechanical function of joints."
Another recent study showed runners averaging 3.5 miles of roadwork each day had 25% less musculoskeletal pain than those averaging just 2 miles each week. Robert Shmerling, M.D. of Harvard Medical School says aside from injuries, it's best to keep your joints active. "If you're worried about "using up" your joints, remember that there is not a limit on the number of times you can make a fist and there is no 'shelf-life' for the knees...it's much better to be physically active than to hold back to protect your joints" said Dr. Shmerling.
Paul Williams, an exercise scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who leads leads the National Runners’ Health Study agrees. Based on almost 75,000 runners since 1991, the study, published last July, stated that runners had less overall risk of developing arthritis than people who were less active. The study included people who were doing 60 or 70 miles per week. Yet another study published in March 2014 makes it's conclusion clear in it's title, "Why Don’t Most Runners Get Knee Osteoarthritis?"
All of this doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful. It's still important to avoid injuries by using well cushioned shoes, running on trails and grass as much as possible, listening to your body and avoid increasing your weekly mileage too quickly or dramatically. And it also doesn't mean that you won't experience increased joint pain as you age, or avoid OA completely. But if you run smart, there's a good chance that you can also run for life.
Further reading: "Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise" by Alex Hutchinson.
Tony has been a runner for over three decades, competing in cross country and track in high school and college, and road races for various clubs. He's served as team captain for several Corporate Challenge teams at YMCA of the USA, and has informally coached many friends over the years.
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