Running and its benefits for arthritis

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Traditionally associated with the elderly, arthritis actually affects people of all ages. There are currently 12,000 children and approximately 27,000 under 25s living with arthritis in the UK.

‘Generally staying active is very beneficial for the joints, for the muscles, for the heart and for the mind,’ says Mr Zameer Shah, Consultant Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgeon at London Bridge Hospital. 'If one has arthritis of the hips knees or ankles then it will have an impact on running. It will be painful but how much and for how long will depend on the degree of arthritis.'

Many sufferers forgo exercise, but the reality is keeping active may just be the very best remedy.

'Exercises such as cross-training, body strengthening, posture, core stability and balance will all help to offset the effect of any arthritis,' says Mr Shah. 'Ensure you warm up and cool down. Run on softer surfaces and modify long runs. The best advice is to run as you feel.' 

If you are struggling with joint pain it's important to get a diagnosis, says Dr Jenna Burton from Pall Mall Medical. If you are experiencing pain, ask yourself these questions:-

  1. Is it definitely arthritis? This can only be diagnosed via an x-ray. Especially at the knee joints, conditions such as patellofemoral syndrome can masquerade as arthritis, though are much more treatable with physiotherapy and home exercises.

  2. If arthritis is confirmed, which arthritis do I have? Most people tend to fit in to either Osteoarthritis (OA) or Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). OA is a result of aging and general wear and tear. It can degenerate cartilage and usually gets worse throughout the day. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is often genetic and a result of the body’s own immune system attacking the joint. This tends to be worse upon getting up, with symptoms improving as the day continues.

If you are confirmed with RA, then it's good to keep moving. 'RA actually improves with exercise and movement, significantly improving symptoms, outcome of disease and your overall health, which can suffer from medications often provided to those with positive rheumatoid factor,' says Dr Burton.

However if you have OA, it is not as straight forward.

'On one hand, exercise is undeniably good for you, with running being one of the top cardiovascular exercises to stress your heart and lungs to their maximum,' explains Dr Burton. 'People who have arthritis are not exempt from needing good quality aerobic exercise to maintain heart health. Plus, it encourages blood to flow to your limbs, improving oxygen and nutrient supply to stressed regions, such as the joints.

'Running also helps to improve muscle tone surrounding the joint, which can ironically, take pressure off the knees and hips themselves. A study performed by Amby Burfoot in 2013 actually showed that runners were half as likely to develop OA or need a hip replacement than non-runners. Runners are usually lighter than the rest of the population, again reducing load from the joints during physical activity.'

If you find that running is too high impact and intolerable, opt for other forms of cardiovascular exercise such as elliptical trainers or cycling.

'Do not blame running for developing arthritis,' adds Dr Burton. 'In fact, thank it for delaying it. However, ensure good running shoes, running technique and combine some weight training to further remove load off the joints themselves. If you suffer from joint pain, be sure it definitely is arthritis. Then and only then, can you can gauge whether running is tolerable for you. If one day you do not feel okay to run, try again the next day as inflammation comes in peaks and troughs. And remember, we were born to run.'