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For Us Old Codgers: Effects of Exercise on Joint Pain

timv's picture

I just saw this column in a old print copy of Runner's World as I was catching up on some of my reading backlog. It addresses a topic that I'd wondered about and had my own preconceptions on.

I seem to recall that there've been some similar results from other studies before, that running (and by extension other vigorous activities) was more likely to prevent than to cause joint degeneration, and more importantly that it contributed to a higher quality of life and less perceived disability regardless of actual changes in the joints' phyisical condition.

The full text is available online but here are a few key paragraphs:

The newest update was published last September in Arthritis Research & Therapy, under the title "Aerobic exercise and its impact on musculoskeletal pain in older adults: a 14-year prospective, longitudinal study." It compared the runners, who averaged about 26 miles a week, to a matched set of controls, who averaged about two miles a week. The authors noted that many observers would predict a sad outcome for the aging runners. "If running creates damage through accumulated trauma," they wrote, "then runners with about ten-fold the exposure to such trauma should have increased pain over time."

Yup, that's it all right: the Aunt Marian argument in a nutshell. Only the argument appears to be unfounded, probably for some of the biomechanical reasons I've already mentioned. The study's major conclusion: The runners experienced "about 25 percent less musculoskeletal pain" than the controls.

Dr. Bonnie Bruce, the principal investigator, is a doctor of public health as well as a registered dietitian and a marathoner. I call her to find out why she chose to measure a subjective feeling like pain rather than a more objective, physical one like joint-space narrowing. "Think about it," she says. "When you're in pain, you can't move about the way you'd like, you can't work effectively, and you can't enjoy a good social life. Pain is important, because it affects every aspect of our lives."

Before long, we're discussing the widely held misperception that vigorous exercise, especially running, will inevitably lead to joint problems. Bruce thinks it comes from the way that running has so often been used as punishment. "It was what your gym teacher made you do when you weren't behaving," she says.

It would help immensely if medical investigators could explain why running and other vigorous exercise don't lead to joint pain. Unfortunately, few docs are willing to make this leap, and Bruce certainly isn't one of them. She makes it clear that her research only uncovered pain trends--and not the pathways behind them. She does, however, list some possible explanations: endorphins, fewer muscular injuries, and the high pain threshold that runners might develop. An Arthritis Foundation paper called "Exercise and Your Arthritis" offers a more direct answer. "The stronger the muscles and tissues around your joints, the better they will be able to support and protect those joints," it says. "If you don't exercise, your muscles become smaller and weaker."

I've always planned to remain as active as possible no matter what. But it's good to have some results to point to when the subject comes up, as it often does. And it's nice to see something besides food recipes and "how to run a six-hour marathon" articles in Runner's World now and then.


roadskater's picture

To Keep Moving as We Age

Thanks for the article, Tim. I can vouch for how much difference it makes when not moving and still eating like I am! After months of thinking it best not to skate at all, of late the 30 minutes per day may be shifting to 40. And being back on solid boots is making a nice difference as well. I still have pushed myself too far to fast sometimes, particularly on skate festival weekends at SkateDC and Philly Freedom Skate, but overall things are getting better and I have hope for burning more calories than I eat some day! Thanks again for another encouragement to do what I can and work for the long term goal of being able to continue for my health!

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