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Running and Your Joints

The pros and cons of running vs. being overweight.

With the Philadelphia Marathon only days away, an article on running seems appropriate.  Running can be a fantastic full body workout.  Every muscle in the entire body is engaged: legs for the running motion, arms for pumping, and core (stomach and back) for staying upright.  Endorphins (feel good brain chemicals) are generated, heart and lungs are exercised, and calories are burned. 

And, runners are rarely overweight.  For every 10 pounds of weight we add about 45 pounds of pressure to our knees when we walk.  So someone who is 25 pounds overweight (using a BMI index as a general guideline) has 112 pounds of undue pressure on their knees with every step.  It is reasonable to say that someone who is only 25 pounds overweight is doing the same damage to their knees with every step, that a runner does only when running. 

In 2006, a study conducted by James Fries, M.D., professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine released conclusions from a 21-year observation of over 400 non-runners and 500 runners.  The joint related disabilities of the non-runner group were nearly twice that of the runner group.

Part of this result is thought to be because cardiovascular exercise  (like running) is beneficial to joints because the expansion and contraction of the joint brings in oxygen and blood that clean toxins out of the joint.  Another reason is because as a person runs (or does other aerobic activity) the muscles and ligaments surrounding the working joints are strengthened. 

But running can have repercussions. Damage for runners is usually in the joints.  Knees, feet, and spine are all at risk. Damage won’t happen in every person, and may happen more quickly in some than in others. But, if the damage begins to show itself, runners should heed the body’s warnings. 

So, if you are a runner, or plan on beginning a running regimen for fitness, there are a few precautions you should take. 

  1. Get good running shoes. Without proper shoes, you WILL do more damage than good. The is owned by and staffed with dedicated and knowledgeable runners. This is especially helpful for people who are new to the discipline, to get their shoes from a salesperson with this kind of personal and professional knowledge.  
  2. Consider paying a personal trainer or a physical therapist for a session.  Have them watch you run on a treadmill and evaluate your form.  If your form is bad, the likelihood of injury increases dramatically. Ask questions of your trainer first.  Make sure that he or she has experience with running.  If they do not, ask them to refer you to someone who does.
  3. Listen to your joints.  If you begin to have joint pain, then take proper care of the joint, whether its ice after a run, scheduling a full body massage (make sure to tell the therapist that you need extra attention in your knees or spine or wherever the pain is), schedule an appointment with a chiropractor, or giving yourself some extra rest.  

Why see a chiropractor?  A good chiropractor can address joints that are ‘out of alignment’.  When the components of a joint are not properly lined up, then things scrape against each other.  It’s kind of like a hinge on a door.  If the hinge is not properly hung, then you hear an annoying scraping squeek with every opening of the door.  With our bodies, this can yield big pain.  The joint itself can be painful, or the joint (especially in the spine) can be grazing a nerve.  Getting the joint back into proper alignment can do worlds of good.

Finally, if you already have joint problems, then running is probably not for you.  There are other options for weight loss, such as swimming, water aerobics, an elliptical machine (which is like running but has zero impact, as your legs go in a circular motion instead of a pounding the pavement), Pilates, and rowing.

In the end, as always, it is far better to exercise than to not.  Just be careful, and have fun!  And, if you need help with injury, you can seek counsel at the orthopedic practice at Lankenau Hospital. Or seek chiropractic treatment at one of the chiropractors or in Roxborough, like Dr. Ted Loos, who himself is a long distance runner.

Louise Fischer November 16, 2011 at 01:37 PM
Thanks again Carol, your articles are always so informative, and drive home the message to get up and move. Finding an exercise that one actually likes to do is the best gift you can give to yourself. For me, it's Rowing!
Carol Haslam November 17, 2011 at 03:55 PM
Ahh Louise, yes, this is Philadelphia and I really do need to do a story on rowing. Perhaps when we get close to the Dadvail, I will dive into that wonderful, low-impact, high-cardio form of exercise. Thanks for the reminder :-)
Joyce Michel November 17, 2011 at 07:48 PM
Why wait for the Dad Vail, we row all year long. Only strong wind, lightning and of course a frozen river keep us off the water. And then of course there is always land training to fill in these gaps.

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