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Posted: July 1, 2020

Is running bad for your joints?

By Christian de Milleville

With so much information literally at our fingertips these days, it can be hard to know what is actually good for us, our health, and our bodies. It is common to hear or read conflicting opinions on most subjects, and it is getting increasingly difficult to sift through the information to figure out what to believe.

When it comes to health and exercise, running is definitely one of these controversial subjects. We all know activities like running are good for keeping our muscles strong and our hearts healthy, but what about our joints? All of that running must be hard on them and we’ve all likely heard that (osteo)arthritis is caused by wear and tear. But what if that isn’t actually accurate?

As it turns out, marathon runners are the perfect test subjects for this question.

If running is hard on our bodies and wear and tear causes arthritis, then marathon runners should be the first ones to get arthritis. But when we turn to scientists who have studied this, the general consensus is that marathon runners do not develop arthritis more often or at a younger age that the general population. So contrary to what many believe, running actually does not increase your risk of developing arthritis. And perhaps the even more surprising thing is that moving and using already arthritic joints doesn’t speed up the progression of arthritis either.

So if running, and wear and tear on our joints, doesn’t cause arthritis, then what actually does? It seems to be a complicated mix of genetics, weight, other health conditions, and – very importantly – previous injury. In many cases when we hurt something it can heal fairly well, but we may not do things, or move, quite the way we used to. The muscles are often weaker, which can cause a change to our movement patterns, and this can lead to force being put through the joint in ways it wasn’t designed for.

So what can you do if you’ve had an injury and want to stay active or keep running?

Here are a few key tips to help you on your way:

  • Strengthen the muscles around the effected joint as much as possible. People are often surprised how much muscle strengthening can reduce pain even when there’s arthritis in the area.
  • Make sure your joints move and absorb shock properly. If you can’t do a movement fully controlled (such as stepping down from a stair very slowly), very quietly (such as jumping and landing while barely making a sound), or if your left and right sides look fairly different, chances are your strength and/or form need some work.
  • If something hurts, take a step back and find a different or modified activity that feels better. Often starting with an easier version of the activity and gradually increasing the intensity or duration over a few weeks to months will make a big difference.
  • Talk to an expert. Another set of eyes, a clearer diagnosis, and determining the concrete steps you can take will make a big difference in making your activity feel better.

With summer fast approaching, this is the perfect time to get out and get active, and now you can do so without worrying about the effect on your joints.

– Christian de Milleville is a physiotherapist and co-founder of PhysioFITT, a company specializing in home physiotherapy appointments, serving Cranbrook and Kimberley.

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