Running's Long-Term Effects on the Joints

Runner running for Marathon

Joint wear and aging are thought to be the serious factors behind a debilitating joint disease called osteoarthritis. High-impact exercises such as running apply tremendous pressure to the knees, ankles and hips, leading many to assume that running wears out your joints over the decades. However, this isn’t necessarily true. The idea that running wears out your joints in the long-term is largely mythical, says Dan Krotz of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, though certain people should take some precautions to protect their joints.

The Joint Decision

Widespread concern that runners will wear out the cartilage in the their knees as the result of years of overuse has led to a stigma against life-long distance running. The cause of this concern is very real. According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis is the world's most common joint disease. It occurs when the cartilage on the ends of the bones diminishes over time, causing those bones to rub against each other. Because there is no known cure, it is important to avoid the disease before its onset by avoiding repetitive stress-bearing movements that have the potential to damage the joints. Running sometimes gets classified as one such activity.

Debunking the Myths

The idea that running causes osteoarthritis has been studied. In July 2013, “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” published a study that followed 14,000 runners and nearly 70,000 walkers during a seven-year period to see if the runners had a higher incidence of osteoarthritis. The results turned out negative. In fact, runners had a lower incidence of both osteoarthritis and hip replacements than habitual walkers of the same demographics. The authors attributed this in part to the lower body mass index of runners compared to those who participated in other exercises.

The Correct Way to Be Cautious

Running doesn't improve joint health for everyone. According to Nancy Lane of the UC Davis Center for Healthy Aging, those with pre-existing joint injuries,and folks at least 20 pounds overweight can experience joint problems from running too much. Lane suggests focusing on other exercises and gradually work your way toward running. Interim exercises like walking can help fill in the rest of your workout until you work off those extra pounds or wait for your knee to heal. Luckily, it’s not just running that helps prevent joint disease. A study published in "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise" in 2011 concluded that many forms of exercise can improve cartilage over time. After a comprehensive review on peer-reviewed studies on joint disease and exercise, the authors concluded that “physical activity is beneficial, rather than detrimental, to joint health.”

In Search of an Even Safer Approach

If you are concerned about your running routine exacerbating a previous injury and causing joint damage, you may want to run barefoot. A study published in April 2013 in the “British Journal of Sports Medicine” found that running barefoot significantly the workload on the knees and the ankles. Though not fully conclusive, the study maintained that the decrease in superfluous joint motion might improve performance and help heal runners' joints. If you do decide to try barefoot running, make sure you choose a safe area to run with no needles or broken glass.