Many people believe that running will lead to knee problems by wearing away the cartilage that cushions bones in the joints. However, the opposite may be true – runners may be less likely to damage their knees and have a lower risk of developing arthritis than people who don’t run. This may be so partly because long-term runners tend to be lean. We know that being overweight doubles the risk for osteoarthritis of the knees and that being obese quadruples it.
But a lower body weight might be only one reason why running doesn’t seem to damage knees.
A study published in June 2016 found that contrary to expectations, a history of leisure (rather than competitive) running isn’t associated with “increased odds of prevalent knee pain,” evidence of arthritis on X-rays or symptoms of arthritis. In fact, the researchers concluded that runners who ran the most were less likely to experience knee pain than those who ran the least. The findings come from the Osteoarthritis Initiative, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that included 2,637 participants. Of this number 778 reported running at some point in life.
A more recent study from Brigham Young University in Utah suggests that running actually may protect against arthritis. Investigators there recruited 15 runners – male and female – between the ages of 18 and 35 to study the effects of running on healthy knees. Specifically, they were looking for markers of inflammation that could signal changes known to lead to arthritis. This required extracting synovial fluid from the runners’ knees. Synovial fluid is the clear liquid that helps lubricate and nourish the cartilage and bone within the capsule that surrounds a healthy joint.
One of the substances in it is cartilage oligomeric matrix protein (COMP). Rising levels of COMP can signal development of arthritis in the knee and tend to be much higher in people with arthritis.
The researchers tested the study participants both before and after 30 minutes of running and found that afterward, the markers for inflammation had decreased. However, these markers were unchanged or had increased slightly when they were measured before and after study participants spent 30 minutes sitting quietly.
In a press release that accompanied publication of the study, lead author Robert D. Hyldahl, an assistant professor of exercise sciences said the research revealed, “that for young, healthy individuals, exercise creates an anti-inflammatory environment that may be beneficial in terms of long-term joint health.” While these results further suggest that running may protect against knee arthritis, they are unlikely to be the last word on the subject. The study was a small one and the researchers have said they would like to conduct a larger one that includes older runners and looks at the effects of running longer distances.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Matt Seeley et al, “Running decreases knee intra=articular cytokine and cartilage oligomeric matrix concentration: a pilot study.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, December 2016, DOI: 10.1007/s00421-016-3474-z
“History of Running is Not Associated with Higher Risk of Grace H. Lo et al,“Symptomatic Knee Osteoarthritis: A Cross-Sectional Study from the Osteoarthritis Initiative.” Arthritis Care & Research, June 22, 2016 DOI: 10.1002/acr.22939