How many times have you heard this one from some of your non-running friends and family: “If you keep up with all that running, the pounding will catch up with you and ruin your joints sooner or later.”
Your well-meaning friends and family are bringing up a logical concern—one that even maybe you have considered. We all love running and it’s certainly a great activity/sport, but if I continue with it, will I end up stiff, in pain and more prone to arthritis when I get older?
It’s a reasonable question and certainly something many of us consider as we age.
Without a doubt, arthritis is a disabling disease that afflicts more than 40 million Americans. Osteoarthritis—the most common form of arthritis—can leave sufferers in constant pain from stiff, aching joints. Making matters much worse, there is no known cure for it.
Almost everyone over the age of 60 suffers a little from arthritis. But, as runners we want to know whether our favored aerobic exercise is more likely to lead to arthritis as we age than for our more sedentary friends and family?
The answer is: Probably not.
Studies have shown that runners and walkers face no greater risk of crippling arthritis than anyone else. Long-term studies of runners—assuming that their knees are healthy to begin with– have shown that running does not increase the risk of developing arthritis, even for older runners. Point of fact: Most specialists believe that a regular running and walking program can keep your knee and hip joints in good working order.
What keeps your joints healthy is a nutrient-rich fluid called synovial. This fluid works like motor oil to lubricate the hip and knee joints (as well as other joints) to keep the joints healthy and operating. Experts believe that running and walking helps the joints remain supple and flush in synovial fluid. Inactivity seems to do just the opposite as lack of movement inhibits the flow of synovial fluid.
Another myth that researchers have debunked is that running causes bones to compact (or compress) due to the daily pounding. But research conducted several years ago on runners in the Fifty-Plus Association (a running group of runners 50 and older, based at Stanford University), found no significant difference in the amount of compression between their bones and the bones of a control group of non-runners. In fact, the Fifty Plus group had less joint deterioration than the non-runners.
Evidently, it isn’t the activity which can lead to arthritis, it’s the lack of activity that can hasten it. Again, activity stimulates the release of synovial fluid into the joints which protects it from degenerative disease. If there isn’t adequate activity of the joint, fresh supplies of the fluid can’t reach the joint. One study showed that “there’s some evidence that cartilage likes cyclical loading.”
Another recent study showed that even though there’s a difference in the amount of force going through a walker or runner’s knee, there’s no net difference. Clearly, a runner generates more pounding with each stride than a walker does, but a runner takes fewer strides over the same distance than a walker. So, the overall load on a runner or walker’s knees are about the same. Measured over a set difference, the wear and tear on the knees is virtually the same for running and walking.
While it’s certainly true that the incidence of arthritis is rising, it may have more to do with the growth of our aging, inactive population than anything else. There are simply more older people than ever before so there are more cases of arthritis. But running doesn’t seem to play a role in the rise of arthritic cases. Most experts, who have studied this, agree that it’s a myth that running will cause the knees and other joints to wear out prematurely.
Even when you take running to its extreme—marathoning for example—it’s essentially a natural human movement. When properly trained, the body adapts well to the stresses of the marathon as muscles are strengthened and muscle tone is increased. The joints, tendons and ligaments that support the knee and hip joint are also strengthened and the synovial fluid is stimulated to lubricate the joint which allows for ease of movement.
So clearly, running does not cause arthritis or hasten its developments. Just the opposite is true: Running and walking promote the good health of your joints and may delay any arthritic condition.
Here are some tips for older runners that will help avoid arthritis:
1. Be aware of warning signs. Arthritis doesn’t happen overnight. There are numerous signs such as unusual pain or inflammation. When that occurs, take a few rest days, use some ice on the sore muscle or joint or take an over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory such as Advil or Aleve.
2. Weight train. Use weights for your lower legs at least twice a week, especially the hamstrings, hip flexors and quadriceps. Stronger leg muscles will help the joints absorb the shock from running.
3. Run on softer surfaces. Make it a point to get off the roads once or twice a week and run on a trail, treadmill or around grass parks.
4. Warm up well and do a cooldown. It’s always better to run on warm muscles (rather than cold), but as you age it’s even more important to get the blood flowing. After a run, don’t stop abruptly but walk or jog slowly for 10 minutes.
5. Take daily dose of glucosamine. Glucosamine has proven effectiveness in relieving joint pain, as an anti-arthritic and as an anti-inflammatory.
6. Stretch. By stretching after running or walking, you’ll maintain flexibility in the muscles that support the joints and decrease the wear and tear. Invest in a yoga or Pilates class.
7. Maintain a healthy weight. Heavier people are more likely to suffer from arthritis. Runners generally have less problems with arthritis because they weigh less than their sedentary counterparts.
8. Use ice after running. If your sore muscles are sore after running, ice the inflamed areas.
9. Wear high quality running shoes. A good shoe is important for any runner, but even more so for an older runner who needs plenty of good cushioning and support.