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Running: Cause or Cure for Arthritis?

Exercise can be a potent treatment and prevention for joint arthritis. You might know how weight training and stretching can help soothe your arthritic joints. Moreover, weight loss through low-impact cardiovascular exercise like walking and biking helps to relieve arthritis pain and possibly prevent arthritis.  Recently researchers have begun to ask if running can help or hurt your joints. Your gut response may be that running will be injurious to your joints, especially if done over a long period of time. The findings of a study published last year in Medical and Science in Sport and Exercise may surprise you.

In this large cross-sectional study, researchers examined nearly 75,000 runners and almost 14,000 walkers for roughly 5 years. At the end of the study the authors found that people that ran were significantly less likely to develop arthritis than those that walked. The authors also found that the faster a person ran the less likely they were to have a hip replacement. The study also highlights how those individuals that were overweight tended to be at higher risk for arthritis and having a hip replacement.

General practitioners such as primary care physicians and physical therapists commonly recommend walking to patients for weight loss, osteoporosis prevention, and arthritis care. The findings of this current study are in stark contrast to the traditional idea of arthritis being solely a “wear and tear” disease. Running is known for its repetitive high impact on joints.  If “wear and tear” were truly the sole cause then runners in this study would have had higher rates of arthritis. Researchers and clinicians alike have begun to look more closely at other causes of arthritis other than simple mechanical forces. For instance, researchers have found correlations with people will report an increase in arthritis pain when they consumed a large amount of refined sugars. Furthermore, multiple case studies have shown the deleterious effects of chronic or excessive use of alcohol and joint health. It appears that diet may have a significant role in the health of your joints.

Several possible reasons exist for why runners may be spared of arthritis later in life. First, as a person runs she spends less contact time on the ground as compared to a person that is walking. The extra time a walker spends on the ground may correlate to more compressive forces from the ground which increases wear and tear. Second, as person runs their legs go through cycles of compression when their legs are on the ground and decompression while the swing freely in the air. It is this compression and decompression that may stimulate proteoglycans to migrate into the joint cartilage. Proteoglycans are small proteins which have been known to help maintain hydration and structure of joint cartilage. Third, running utilizes more calories which will help to reduce body fat and maintain weight. Weighing less can reduce the constant compression on the joints by gravity during standing and daily activities. Fourth, running uses more glucose and expends more energy in a set time when compared to walking – running may help regulate blood sugars, which may reduce pain and inflammation.

The study had some limitations in that it did not control for all factors involved. Plus the group of runners may have made more healthy choices than those in walking group. For instance, the runners may have been less inclined to drink alcohol or eat highly refined sugars – two factors that can contribute to arthritis. This is only one cross-sectional study, which can mean data were missed or potential research bias may have taken place.

While running has been seen as a way to “wear” down your joints, evolving research is showing that running’s mechanical force may be beneficial. Moreover, other physiological benefits may be occurring during running that helps to prevent arthritis. In order to prevent injury and maximize your results many people need to prepare for running by performing strength training exercises, stretching, and lower forms of cardiovascular exercise. Running can be very taxing on your heart, lungs, and may not be appropriate for you. Speak with your health care provider and be sure they assess your strength and medical readiness before you begin running.

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