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Arthritic knees do better with a jog, new research shows

By Lorraine Graves

Published 1:45 PDT, Wed May 30, 2018

Last Updated: 2:12 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

Common wisdom has it that you need to protect your knees, especially if you have arthritis, by wearing foamy runners and avoiding running, to preserve the cartilage in the joints.

But the latest research suggests that’s not true.

According to J.F. Esculier of the University of British Columbia and Arthritis Research Canada (ARC), you do more damage to your joints by doing nothing.

A post-doctoral fellow in UBC’s department of physical therapy and an active physical therapist, Esculier says moderate exercise strengthens the cartilage that cushions our joints. Exercise that includes running.

“Listen to you body. If you have been doing 10 kilometres each week and doing fine but then go up to 20 and live in pain, then cut back or increase your mileage gradually,” he says.

Esculier had researched running shoes, specifically their soles. Most people thought the cushier the better. It turns out that wasn’t true.

Too much padding means people can’t tell when their running is hurting their feet or joints because there isn’t the pressure point feedback that warns a runner to not land on their heels, toes, or sides of their foot too much.

ARC promoted Esculier’s online survey that asked the public and health care providers if they thought it was safe to jog if you have osteoarthritis in your knees.

“The results we got, the most interesting one that we were not expecting, said there was a very high rate of uncertainty. So that told me we should keep going with our research.”

Another interesting result from Esculier’s survey was that 8o percent of runners would decrease running if they were diagnosed with arthritis.

Thinking like a scientist, Esculier says, “That’s a good motivation for us to come up with more data.”

Together with associate UBC physical therapy professor Michael Hunt, Esculier describes their research. “What we are doing is taking an MRI before and after running on a treadmill, looking at how that cartilage recovers.”

Their preliminary study compared two groups of 10 female runners. One group had osteoarthritis in their knees and the other didn’t. Hunt and Esculier did MRIs of everyone’s knee cartilage, the translucent impact absorber between the joints, before and after a 30 minute treadmill run.

“From the preliminary results, now it seems that cartilage is just as able to tolerate running and recover following running. If you have osteoarthritis you can actually sustain loads of running (the same as) healthy people who are the same age,” says Esculier.

This study is paving the way for the next stage of the research they hope to do. They plan to study larger groups of recreational runners for longer, to look at the effect of 12-week running program, to figure out what it does to both normal and arthritic knees.

“Similar to training for the Sun Run,” Esculier says.

They have two groups of 30 recreational runners about the same age: one group with osteoarthritis and one without. They plan to do an MRI scan on the patients as each finishes their first run then, check everyone again at the end of the three-month program. They will compare each person’s before training and after images to see what happened. Early data suggests the running will be healthy for everyone’s knees.

Esculier’s work follows on the heels of another group of scientists who gleaned information from numerous finished studies that looked at running and its affect on every associated load-bearing joint. When the scientists tabulated the results of all those other researchers’ findings, they published a June 2017 paper in the scientific Journal of Orthopedic Sports Physical Therapy saying, “Recreational runners had a lower occurrence of OA (osteoarthritis) compared with competitive runners and (sedentary) controls. These results indicated that a more sedentary lifestyle or long exposure to high-volume and/or high-intensity running are both associated with hip and/or knee OA.”

Esculier and Hunt’s research will use actual MRI images of what’s happening inside the runners’ knees, what’s happening to the cartilage, to see the effects of running on both arthritic and normal knees.

“We are not looking at elite level athletes here, the kind that participate in the Olympics,”

Esculier says. “I am looking at people who are already able to maintain a certain level of activity but have knee pain, osteoarthritis in their knees and people who want to maintain recreational running. In Vancouver it is a very, very large population. The Vancouver Sun Run with 42,000 people who take part, (many) are aged 40 plus, 50 plus. They want to keep doing it to maintain their health, stay active.”

Esculier’s preliminary results say don’t shy away from running for fun or exercise even if you have arthritis in your knees. Not only does it not damage the cartilage in your joints, it is actually healthier for your creaky joints.

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