Dispelling Myths: Running and Arthritis

A few weeks ago there was an article from the Telegraph newspaper doing the rounds on Twitter. The premise of the article was actually pretty good. It extolled the benefits of weight training for women. Not the typical equipment you might find at the gym but free weights and weight lifting. It was entitled ‘If you want to get in shape, ditch the lady weights and hit the iron’. You can find it here.

I agreed with what most of the author, Dr Brooke Magnanti, said. I agreed with her that you need to lift signficant weights to tone up and become stronger. I started lifting heavier weights during my marathon training and I think it helped me to remain injury free. I agree with her that women are being lied to about diet and exercise and that women have pretty much been brain washed to believe that you can get a Jessica Ennis type body in 4 weeks. More like 5 years and the rest. And she’s right that power lifting makes you feel great because it does. It’s intimidating at first but once you learn the skills and lift progressively higher weights you start to feel amazing. I’d recommend any woman try to learn some weight lifting techniques because it’s not just for men or Olympians.

I was really enjoying the article but then she went and ruined it for me by saying this:

‘Something you can still be doing well into old age, when every marathon runner has had a double knee replacement already? The iron.’

In layman’s terms she is implying that marathon running causes osteoarthritis of the knee. I was incandescent. I am a runner and I am a physiotherapist and I have done my fair share of reading around the subjects and I’m here to tell you right now she is talking UTTER BOLLOCKS.

I went away and did a little research and it was very easy to discover, if you look in the right places, that running has no direct link to causing osteoarthritis of the knee. Many review papers have found that runners are no more likely to develop osteoarthritic changes in the knee and hip than non runners. More research is obviously always needed but anecdotally I have never treated someone who had knee arthritis because of running. Following knee injury playing rugby and football, yes. Being overweight, yes. Hereditary factors, environmental factors, yes. But oddly, or not so oddly enough, from running.

I’m not suggesting runners are immune but there is no evidence that the action of running itself directly causes arthritis. As mentioned above there tends to be other factors contributing such as foot wear, poor muscle power, poor form, poor posture and training errors but not just running. To suggest that in a national paper is a powerful myth to perpetuate and one that has no truth in it. In fact running and other weight bearing exercise has been shown to increase bone density and production of joint fluid so it may in fact hep to prevent osteoarthritis.

So put the thought that running will damage your knees to the back of your mind because it simply isn’t true. I’m not singing the virtues of one exercise over another because to do that is unhelpful. If we stopped doing a sport activity because of potential risks or urban myths then the nation would be even more unfit and overweight than it already is. Just know that marathon running in itself does not lead directly to the orthopaedic surgeon and a couple of joint replacements.

Here’s a link to an abstract from one of the articles I looked at in PM&R, the journal of injury, function and rehabilitation: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22632690. I also searched the archive on the British Journal of Sports Medicine which is a great resource.

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