When you receive your first lecture about how to wreck your knees as a runner, you’ll know you’ve made it as a runner. Typically, this “advice” is predicated on the notion that running raises the possibility of knee osteoarthritis. But in actuality, it doesn’t.

Running and Knee Osteoarthritis

Numerous studies have indicated that runners had lower rates of osteoarthritis in the knees than inactive people. This should be emphasized as strongly as possible. 

In one study that tracked runners and non-runners for nearly 20 years, X-rays revealed symptoms of arthritis in the knees of 20% of the runners and 32% of the non-runners.

One possible counterargument to such findings is that when the studies begin, the long-term runners who participate have above-average structural health—they do not include persons who started running but had to stop because their bodies broke down.

That notion has also been debunked by research. One study followed over 2,000 participants for several years to see how many acquired arthritic knees. The participants provided extensive information on how frequently and intensely knee discomfort was experienced. They also discussed their present and previous fitness routines. In other words, the volunteers were not chosen based on whether or not they were runners.

However, it was discovered that running activities did matter. Current runners had better conditions than non-runners in terms of the frequency of knee discomfort, signs of arthritis, and X-ray evidence of arthritis. 

For instance, those who currently run were 29% less likely to report knee discomfort than those who do not run frequently. Even former runners had a lower incidence of knee discomfort and arthritic symptoms than non-runners. The last result is the opposite of what would be expected if jogging damaged their knees and forced them to stop.

Research also shows that running and knee arthritis aren’t a case of “play now, pay later,” with jogging raising your odds of physical restrictions as you age. In one study, researchers compared running club members with healthy non-runners; all study participants were at least 50 years old at the start of the trial. The participants were contacted 21 years later by the researchers. Not only were more runners surviving, but they also reported far fewer physical limitations.

According to the study, “running at middle and older ages is connected with reduced impairment in later life.”

Runners Have Lower Rates of Knee Osteoarthritis

To address this question, it is necessary to be familiar with current osteoarthritis findings.

Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints, which are the locations on your body where bones meet (knees, hips, wrists, etc.). Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis marked by the thinning and degradation of the protective tissue called cartilage, which is found at the ends of bones.

Osteoarthritis was once thought to be a “wear and tear” disease, with bodily parts compared to machinery that eventually fails. Medical specialists no longer commonly accept such a theory. Instead, osteoarthritis is regarded as a joint disease with numerous probable causes.

Running’s potential to fend off developing osteoarthritis makes more sense with this more complex understanding of the condition. First off, compared to the normal person, runners typically have a lower body mass index (BMI), and any additional weight puts more stress on joints. In lengthy research, runners had a lower incidence of hip replacements and osteoarthritis than walkers and other less serious exercisers. The researchers mentioned the reduced BMIs of the runners as one of the likely causes.

Being overweight is also linked to chronic low-grade body inflammation; by assisting you in maintaining a healthy weight, running reduces the likelihood that your joints will be vulnerable to this possible harmful inflammation.

Additionally, there is strong evidence that knee cartilage follows the “use it or lose it” rule, much like the rest of your body. Running keeps your joints lubricated and encourages your body to produce new cartilage instead of damaging them. Additionally, when your cartilage adjusts to the stresses of running, researchers have shown that jogging conditions cartilage to become more resilient. People with osteoarthritis who are sedentary are recommended to exercise frequently for the same reasons.

What Happens If Your Knees Are Already in Poor Condition?

It’s one thing to say that running lowers your chances of acquiring knee osteoarthritis. However, is running still an option for you if you already have it, or if you have another type of chronic knee problem? 

The research in this field is promising.  In one study, researchers followed participants who were at least 50 years old and had osteoarthritis in at least one knee. Running participants reported reduced knee discomfort at the end of the eight-year research, and imaging results indicated that their arthritis had not advanced.

Imaging revealed signs of injury (not necessarily arthritis) in most of the knees in a four-month examination of middle-aged adults. 

MRIs of the knees of half of the study’s participants after they had completed a four-month marathon training program revealed less injury than at the beginning of the study. The findings were consistent with the results of a study that middle-aged individuals at risk of osteoarthritis had healthier knee cartilage after four months of moderate activity.

All runners would do well to “listen to your body.” For runners with knee discomfort, this means letting your symptoms determine how much and what kind of running is manageable. Take heart that there is reason to assume running won’t make your condition worse over time if you proceed with this trial and error process.

How to Prevent Common Knee Injuries

All of this is not meant to imply that runners are not susceptible to knee issues. Knee problems were three of the top five injury categories in a study of more than 2,000 runners seen at a sports medicine clinic. 

To prevent knee injuries when running, you need to understand how your body moves when you run and what you can do to keep your knees healthy. It’s also important that you know the best types of shoes for your running style and how to keep your running shoes in good shape. And it’s also important to know when to stop running and when to start running again. This information can help you prevent knee injuries when running.

The Takeaway

Knee injuries are the most common injury for runners, but no evidence shows that running causes knee diseases such as osteoarthritis. There is substantial evidence that running can help prevent knee osteoarthritis for both men and women in their 50s and 60s. 

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