“What about your knees? How are they doing? Dont you think it would be better for them if you didn’t run?”
If you’re a runner, chances are you’ve fielded those questions more than once. Not from doctors or physiotherapists, but from non-running friends and family members who assume that pavement pounding wreaks havoc on our bodies and that we’ll all eventually need knee replacements and motorised scooters because of our arthritic joints.
Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, occurs when cartilage, the spongy tissue that cushions our joints, breaks down and deteriorates, making weight-bearing activities painful.
Many people believe that running accelerates this process. And while most of us credit our running for keeping our heart, lungs, and soul healthy and happy, a twinge in an ankle or stiffness in a knee makes us wonder if our non-running buddies are perhaps right and our joints are bearing an unreasonable burden.
The fact is, if we run responsibly wear decent shoes and replace them when worn out, rehab injuries properly, incorporate cross-training and rest days into our schedules as needed , we’re no more susceptible to OA than the general population, say medical experts.
Actually, it’s the doubters on the sidelines who could have a better chance of developing it.
Weighing In on Knee Pain
The number-one risk factor for OA is excess body fat - a problem most runners don’t have. Sedentary, overweight people are 45 percent more likely to develop OA than those who are active. The more you weigh, the more pressure is placed on the joints, which seems to accelerate the breakdown of cartilage. Since losing weight is one of the best ways to prevent OA (losing five kilograms can take between 20 and 25 kilograms of pressure off the knee), and running is one of the most effective kilojoule-burners, hopping on the treadmill for a tempo session could help.
But running does more than just lighten the body’s load. Aerobic exercise improves most body functions - including joint health. When you exercise, the cartilage in your hips, knees and ankles compresses and expands. This draws in oxygen and flushes out waste products, nourishing and keeping the cartilage healthy. Without exercise, cartilage cells get weak and sick.
Furthermore, running strengthens the ligaments that help support joints, making them more stable and less susceptible to sprains and strains, which can damage cartilage and eventually lead to OA.