Turns Out Running May Actually Be Good for Your Knees

If you’re a runner, then maybe you’ve worried about the long-term consequences of all that pounding on your knees. But here’s some encouraging news: According to a study from Brigham Young University, running appears to reduce inflammation in the knee joint—not increase it, as commonly believed.

In fact, the authors say, running may actually protect knees down the road, and safeguard against degenerative diseases like .

The new finding “flies in the face of intuition,” said study co-author Matt Seeley, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at BYU, in a press release. “This idea that long-distance running is bad for your knees might be a myth.”

To test this age-old theory, Seeley and his colleagues analyzed samples of fluid taken from the knee joints of healthy men and women, ages 18 to 35, both before and after a 30-minute run. Specifically, they measured the synovial fluid for two proteins (called GM-CSF and IL-15) that indicate the presence of harmful inflammation.

They found that levels of both proteins went down after 30 minutes of running, suggesting a decrease in overall inflammation in the joint. To rule out other factors that may have contributed to the drop, the researchers also performed a “control” test, taking fluid samples before and after a 30-minute seated rest. During that test, protein levels did not change between samples.

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The study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, was very small: the researchers were only able to compare a full set of before-and-after samples for six participants. They say their findings should be confirmed in larger populations. Plus, since the participants only ran for half an hour, the same results might not apply to people logging longer distances.

Still, Robert Hyldahl, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science, believes the results are a good argument against the belief that runners are more likely to get osteoarthritis of the knee than non-runners.

Rather, they indicate that running is chrondoprotective—which means it may help delay the onset of degenerative joint diseases. “What we now know is that for young, healthy individuals, exercise creates an anti-inflammatory environment that may be beneficial in terms of long-term joint health,” Hyldahl said in the press release.

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Osteoarthritis, a painful disease in which the protective cartilage between bones wears down over time, affects about 27 million people. Women are at higher risk, as are people who’ve had traumatic sports injuries. (Next, the researchers plan to study whether running’s anti-inflammatory effects also apply to people with previous knee problems, like ACL tears.)

Sedentary behavior is also a known risk factor for osteoarthritis. Strength-training and weight-bearing exercises have long been recommended to keep joints healthy, but experts have been cautious to recommend high-impact, repetitive workouts like long-distance running. 

These new findings imply that, for healthy individuals, that caution may not be necessary. “This study suggests exercise can be a type of medicine,” Seeley said.

Of course, it is possible to get hurt while running—especially if you ramp up your routine too quickly or too intensely. And if you do wind up with pain and inflammation after a long run (in your knees or anywhere else), it’s important to figure out what’s going wrong so you can take steps to treat the problem.

How Chair Yoga Can Help Your Arthritis

There may finally be a new, non-drug remedy for osteoarthritis. It turns out chair yoga—which involves using a chair for support in modified yoga poses—could have real benefits for people who suffer from the condition. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have found that the gentle style helped ease pain and increase mobility in older adults.

For the study, 131 seniors with (the kind caused by lifelong wear and tear in the joints) in the knees, hips, feet, or ankles were divided into two groups. One group attended Sit N’ Fit Chair Yoga, a program developed by instructor Kristine Lee, twice a week. The rest of the participants attended a health education program twice a week, according to the report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

After eight weeks, the people taking chair yoga experienced a greater decrease in fatigue, pain, and pain interference (or the extent to which their discomfort interfered with their daily activities). They also had a greater improvement in their walking speed compared to the control group.

“For most people with osteoarthritis, chronic pain is a major issue, and they rely on many pain meds that can really affect their health,” says co-author JuYoung Park, PhD, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s College for Design and Social Inquiry. “We know exercise, like aerobics, can help manage pain, but a lot of people aren’t able to do these exercises because they’re afraid of falling or balancing. Chair yoga offers a support system for them to do exercises.”

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The Sit N’ Fit yoga class included both seated and standing poses, as well as breathing exercises, with a focus on relaxation and meditation. To see if the benefits of the 8-week program would last, the researchers followed up with the participants three months later.

By then, the participants’ pain, fatigue, and gait speed had returned to their original levels. That’s probably because they didn’t keep up their chair yoga practice at home, says Park. “They liked coming to the class, seeing the instructor demonstrate the moves, and having the social aspect of it,” she explains.

But the positive effect on pain interference remained. Park believes the yoga practice taught participants how to better handle discomfort during everyday activities, such as household chores. “When they experience pain, they can use their relaxation and meditation techniques to get through it,” she says.

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Celebrity yoga instructor and Health contributing editor, Kristin McGee, has found chair yoga to be helpful for many of her clients—not just those who have arthritis, but people with injuries or a disabilities, pregnant women, and clients carrying excess weight as well. McGee is the author of the new book, Chair Yoga: Sit, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Way to a Happier, Healthier You ($19, amazon.com).

“The instinct is to not move a joint that is painful, but you need to keep movement in the joint to allow fluid to flow through and so you don’t atrophy,” says McGee. “So chair yoga is a great low-impact option. Plus, breathing helps with pain management, and calms the nervous system.”

If you are interested in trying it, be sure to go slow and listen to your body, McGee says: “Pay attention to the difference between the discomfort of a stretch and actual pain.” You can breathe through discomfort; but if something truly hurts, you should stop doing it.

To get started, she suggests three simple stretches—Eagle pose, High alter pose, and Triceps stretch. In the video below, you can watch McGee demonstrate these poses in a relaxing and restorative chair yoga flow that takes just about 10 minutes:

Eagle pose

Extend your right arm in front of you to make an “L” shape, with your fingers pointing to the ceiling. Then wrap your left arm under and in front of your right arm, and try to bring your palms to a prayer position. Lift your arms away from your face and hold the stretch to open your shoulders.

High alter pose

Lift your arms over your head, interlace your fingers, and press the heels of your hands to the sky. Lean to one side, with the opposite hip anchored on the chair. Lengthen your lower back. Return to center and repeat on the other side.

Triceps stretch

Take your right arm overhead and pull the right elbow with the left hand to stretch your triceps, rotator cuff, and shoulder. (To modify this pose, hold onto either end of a towel.) Repeat on the other side.

These moves can be done at your desk or during your commute, says McGee, whether you’re seeking relief from aches and pain, or you just need a breather.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Can Sugar Injections Really Ease Knee Pain?

If you suffer from chronic knee pain, you may have tried anti-inflammatory medicines, physical therapy, or cortisone shots to provide some relief. Now, a new scientific review lends support to a lesser-known remedy that may work when others don’t: prolotherapy, a technique that involves injecting a sugar solution into joints damaged by osteoarthritis or injury.

Italian researchers who conducted the review say there’s only enough evidence to recommend the alternative remedy after traditional treatments haven’t helped. But proponents of prolotherapy say it’s safe, effective, and should be used more often than it currently is.

The idea behind prolotherapy, says Thomas Bond, MD, president-elect of the American Association of Orthopaedic Medicine (AAOM), is that injecting an irritant near the site of torn or stretched connective tissue will stimulate the body’s immune system and speed up the healing process. That’s why sugar water works well, he adds: It has a higher osmotic pressure than other fluids in the body, so it sucks water out of nearby cells—essentially causing local damage and jump-starting the body’s inflammatory response.

“The first step of all healing, whether your body’s fighting an infection or cancer or a torn ligament, is always inflammation,” says Dr. Bond. “It’s the body’s way of calling 911 so it can get its emergency response team there to address the problem.”

Sugar also has an added benefit of bonding to pain receptors in the body, says Dr. Bond—so at the same time it’s repairing and strengthening ligaments and tendons, it’s also blocking short-term pain signals. Treatment plans usually involve multiple shots over the course of a several months. 

Prolotherapy is used most commonly in the United States for , but it can also be used to treat arthritis, sports injuries, or carpal tunnel syndrome in other joints. But while the AAOM recognizes prolotherapy as safe and effective, other medical groups, such as the American Pain Society, don’t include it in their official treatment guidelines.

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The authors of the new review, published in the British Medical Bulletin, are cautious about prolotherapy as well. They looked at 10 previous studies, including a total of 529 patients, that tested injections containing either the sugar dextrose, dextrose plus sodium, or dextrose plus anesthetics such as lidocaine.

Overall, the review found that patients reported improvements in pain, function, and range of motion with prolothreapy, and no dangerous side effects were reported. But the studies were small and weren’t consistent enough that their data could be pooled accurately, say the authors, and several were of poor quality or didn’t report complete results.

Because of this, senior study author Nicola Maffulli, MD, told Reuters, there’s not enough evidence to recommend prolotherapy as a first-line treatment. Rather, he said, it should be part of a larger plan for pain management that might also include , activity changes, and physical therapy.

RELATED: 13 Natural Remedies for Arthritis

Dr. Bond believes the main reason prolothreapy isn’t more widely known is because insurance companies have been slow to recognize its benefits. (It’s rarely covered, and can cost several hundred dollars a session.) But he hopes this will change in the future.

“In the past few decades, we’ve had professional athletes start to say, ‘We know cortisone shots don’t work long-term and they’re not good for our bones; we want something that actually heals tissue,’” Dr. Bond says. “They’re starting to pay more attention to these regenerative technologies.”