Many of us enjoy a run in the park and it's well known that regular exercise brings a whole range of health benefits. But some people contend that running is terrible for your knees and should be avoided in favour of other types of phyiscal activity. So who's right? Leading orthopaedic surgeon Mr Manoj Sood looks at the evidence, and discusses whether the benefits of running can be outweighed by the risks.
Many of my patients with arthritis are keen runners, and are often worried whether running is going to cause arthritis in their knees.
Before we explore the evidence on this topic it’s worth putting it into context. All advice should be based on weighing up the risks with the benefits, and this is individual to each patient. So I disagree strongly with doctors who offer blanket advice to anyone with a risk of arthritis that they should give up running. Let’s look instead at the evidence, and see if the benefits of running outweigh the risks.
We know that there are huge benefits to running. It’s something many people enjoy, and it brings them physical and mental benefits. We’re designed to be active and the health benefits of regular exercise are clearer now than ever. Whatever your age, exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
But is running the best exercise? If running resulted in knee arthritis among healthy individuals this would be a reason to recommend other, less damaging forms of exercise. So let’s look at the evidence.
One good study looked at healthy runners aged 18 to 35, measuring the levels of harmful inflammatory chemicals in their knees before exercise and after 30 minutes of running. They found that running actually reduces the levels of these chemicals. This reduction was not seen in other forms of physical activity, so it looks as though running is actually one of the only sports that prevents cartilage damage in the knees.
We also have a study looking at the effects in older runners. This compared a group of older long-distance runners to a group of healthy non-runners of the same age. Both groups were given X-rays at regular intervals to assess the progression of arthritis. If running did cause arthritis, then you would expect the arthritis to progress more rapidly in the long-distance runner group. However, this is not what happened – the results for both groups were exactly the same.
In other words, whatever your age there is no evidence that running will cause you to develop arthritis in your knees. If anything, among younger patients running is the best exercise for preventing knee arthritis. So stay on track – and keep running!