Does running cause arthritis is a question that I have started to ask myself, especially now that I am in my 50's and not getting any younger. After all, I love to run, do it several time a week and I definitely don't want to stop.
Many people have told me to watch out for my knees as I age, so I set out to discover does running cause arthritis, in order to reassure myself.
First stop was Arthritis Research UK.
In response to the question "Can walking cause arthritis?", the response by Dr Philip Helliwell was :
"The link between sport, running and arthritis has been investigated extensively. I'm not sure that this has been done for people who only walk but I would think the situation is comparable. In short (because I could use this whole page to answer your question) there's no evidence that moderate exercise harms the joints. Indeed there's evidence that it's good for the joints, muscles and bones. And, of course, it's also good for the heart and lungs. Only if the joints are injured, such as with football players, does the association between exercise and damage become apparent. So, my advice is to carry on walking."
Arthritis Research UK also goes on to talk about how if you already suffer from arthritis, then exercising is important for strengthening your muscles and for easing stiffness and helping joint movements. Our bodies need to keep moving in order to stay healthy.
The exercise that you choose should be in function of your capabilities and pain levels. So it could be gentle running or other cross training activities such as cycling, swimming, walking and so on.
This was backed up by Arthritis.org who go on to say :
"Running is a great aerobic exercise. It improves your heart and lung health, helps control weight, strengthens muscles and builds denser bones. A regular running routine compresses and releases the cartilage in your knees, helping circulate synovial fluid that brings oxygen and nourishes your joints, and removes inflammatory waste products. Because running is a high-impact sport, some doctors do not recommend it for those who have arthritis in the weight-bearing joints of the spine, hips, knees, ankles and feet or for those who have had knee or hip surgery. However, there are many people with arthritis who tolerate moderate running, particularly if you are impacted primarily in your upper-body joints."
#1. The knees of Framingham
In 1948, more than 5,200 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, volunteered for the Framingham Heart Study. Following the results of this initial study, scientists began a new study in 1971, following the children and their spouses of the original study group. Then in 1993, to supplement this data, 1,279 of the Framingham Offspring Cohort agreed to be part of a study to understand if there were links between arthritis and exercise and find out does running cause arthritis
At the start of this study, the average age was 53 and none of the particpants had arthritis. Each subject initially filled out a detailed questionnaire detailing current injuries or issues, had knee X-rays and detailed bodily measurements taken. At the end of the study all the subjects repeated the questionnaire and physical examinations. This final phase took place over a few years between 2002 and 2005.
The results were encouraging. The researchers found that there was no link between exercise and arthritis and that the more active participants had the same risk of arthritis as the more sedentary participants.
#2. Effects of running and walking on osteoarthritis and hip replacement risk
A paper by Williams PT, published in 2013 in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal, looked at whether running and other strenuous activities gave rise to more incidences of osteoarthritis (OA) as opposed to gentler activities such as walking. Over a period of 5 - 7 years, the researchers followed 74,752 runners and 14,625 walkers.
Of the runners, after 7 years, 2.68% reported osteoarthritis and <0.5% had needed a hip replacement. Among the walkers, the figures were quite different. After 5 years, 4.76% reported osteoarthritis and 0.8% had needed a hip replacement. So nearly double that of the runners.
Williams concluded that not only were runners less likely to get osteoarthritis and need hip replacements as opposed to the walkers, but also that running in fact strengthened the joint cartilage and tissues.
Osteoarthritis is not just related to activity or lack of it, but in fact genetics and weight also play a big role. If the arthritis gene does run in your family, there is nothing you can do to eliminate the gene. However you can minimise the effects in several ways.
For every pound that you are overweight, that is like an extra 4 pounds of weight that your knees have to carry. So keep your weight in check.
Our Western diets are full of inflammatory foods and sugar is a big one. If you are a big sugar and refined carbohydrate eater, these have a big inflammatory effect on all your body systems including your joints.
Although we know that being active reduces your risk of arthritis, it is important to exercise and train wisely. Take your time and build up your training slowly, because if you succumb to for example a knee injury from overuse, that knee will be more likely to develop osteoarthritis a few years down the line.
So it is a great relief to know that running does not cause arthritis and that it is very possible to be able to carry on running into old age, without major risk of developing arthritis.
However if you are overweight, have a family history of arthritis or have had knee or hip injuries in the past, then take action now to minimise your risk.