Running has become enormously popular in the last few decades. No longer just a pastime for the young and slim, many people of all ages and sizes have taken up the sport in order to improve their endurance and get fit. For converts, the health benefits of running are second to none.

But how about all that pavement pounding? Detractors claim that running causes arthritis, particularly in the knee, and some doctors are adamantly against it for their patients. Others, however, are enthusiastic proponents of the sport. Making sense of the numerous studies done in this area can be trying. One study at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas looked at 17,000 men and found that young and middle-aged subjects who walked or ran more than 20 miles a week had significantly more osteoarthritis of the knee over a 10-year period than others. Meanwhile, another study out of Stanford University compared 45 long-distance runners with 53 control subjects and found that the distance runners had no increased incidence of osteoarthritis at all.

Why such discrepancies? Some of the studies done on this subject have been small and have lumped dedicated runners in with other types of athletes. And some of the studies have had other limitations, such as not accounting for outside activities that could affect the knee, such as doing a lot of squatting, kneeling or lifting.

Clearly, there is no clear-cut answer as to whether running triggers or aggravates osteoarthritis of the knee. Obviously, if you experience knee pain during or after runs, you should make an appointment with a doctor who specializes in sports medicine. The solution may be something as simple as dropping a few pounds to reduce the load on your knees, or running fewer miles per week. What's important, though, is to stay active. According to the American Pain Foundation, exercise is necessary to keep joints healthy and flexible. Alternatives to running that still provide a heart-pumping cardio session include using the elliptical machine, the rowing machine, or the stationary bike. You can also take your road bike out for a spin, or alternate running days with fast walking days.


Sources: American Pain Foundation,; National Institutes of Health,; Cymet TC, Sinkov V (2006). Does Long-Distance Running Cause Osteoarthritis? Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 106(6), 342-345.