It’s time to grab those running shoes out of the closet, folks. It turns out running won’t trash your knees after all.
While running has been proven to lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and even cancer, there has been a long-standing argument that those benefits come at the expense of your knees as a consequence of constant pounding. But research shows the joint concerns might be no more than a myth.
In fact, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation rheumatologist Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., is taking the claim a step further: “Not only is running not bad for your knees, it is actually good for them,” she said.
Prior to joining OMRF in 2011, Chakravarty and her then-colleagues at Stanford University studied a large group of running club members over the course of more than 20 years to investigate the effects of routine exercise. Participants filled out forms and received X-rays every year during the study.
“The initial study was designed to show that runners lived longer, had fewer cardiovascular problems and were generally living healthier lives,” said Chakravarty.
Most of what researchers found was expected: that runners were healthier overall than non-runners in the study. The control group was comprised of people with similar education levels, body mass indexes and other comparable factors. The main difference was whether they engaged in a consistent running routine.
“We didn’t just study runners versus a bunch overweight people who ate fast food and lounged around on the couch,” she said.
The study largely confirmed much of what the researchers already thought going on, but one particular thing stood out as a pleasant surprise.
“We found that disability, which happens to everyone with aging, was greatly reduced in the people who ran,” said Chakravarty. “In an overall assessment of physical function, the runners were less disabled, meaning they had fewer problems climbing stairs, getting in and out of cars and so on. This was really a surprise.”
Not only did the knees of the avid runners show less wear and tear than their non-running counterparts, the runners also reported less osteoarthritis and overall disability. Chakravarty said the runners also had lower levels of cartilage loss and were less likely to have bone-on-bone arthritis and knee replacements.
“When you think about it, it makes sense, because the more you exercise, the more you strengthen the supporting ligaments and muscle structures that protect the knee,” she said.
Chakravarty added that the more you exercise, the more you build up your quadriceps, the muscles on the front of your thigh. The stronger these stabilizer muscles are, the more your knees will be protected from damage.
Another contributing factor lies in the cartilage itself. “Cartilage doesn’t have any blood vessels, so the only way it gets nutrients is when you bend your knee,” she said.
According to Chakravarty, running isn’t the only way to reap these physiologic rewards. Any aerobic exercise can provide similar benefits.
“Do something to get your heart rate up. That’s the real health benefit,” she said. “Riding a bike, swimming and things like that are fine, and they are going to have less impact on your knees. But if you like running and have the body mechanics to run, then feel free to hit the trail.”