Are Running, Walking, or Climbing Stairs Bad for Your Knees?

Bad knees are something that happens to many of us (50% at least, at some point in our lives).  I don’t need to tell you that it can be a game-changer, stopping many of us from getting around the way we would like to.  Thank goodness for the fact that we can now get the darn things replaced if it gets bad enough. 

This may get us to wondering…what are we doing wrong?  Should we avoid running, walking too much, or taking too many flights of stairs?  What about those exercise recommendations that tell us to at least walk (don’t have to run) for our health, and to take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator?  Are they trying to doom us to pain later on? 

Just to clarify, I am talking exclusively about osteoarthritis, the kind that can result from wear and tear, loss of cartilage, or faulty movement patterns.  The other kind, rheumatoid arthritis, is an inflammatory disease that is unrelated to osteoarthritis. 

Is Running Bad for Our Knees?

How many of us have heard again and again that running is bad for your knees?  After all, take a look at how many professional athletes pull up with bad knees during their career or later on.

For running, the research is clear.  Running is NOT bad for your knees.  In fact, runners come out smelling like a rose in the long run compared to people who are sedentary.  Turns out that runners actually live longer with less disability. 

How come?  And, for those of us who don’t run, what can we take away from this?

First of all…a clarification.  Professional athletes, particularly soccer and football players, get hit from the side or can plant and twist a knee.  Yes, they run a lot.  But it’s really the sideways beating on the knee that causes damage (like an ACL tear) that can lead to deterioration and arthritis later on. 

Some studies have looked at what else is going on with runners that causes their knees to be less likely to turn on them.  What stands out is that runners tend to have less body fat than many others.  In fact, being overweight or obese is very hard on your knees.  It adds more strain on the joint, and makes it more likely that movement will be compromised because of compensations. 

Some people are aware that the cartilage in the knee (and elsewhere) does not have a blood supply.  This has led some folks to figure that it will not repair itself and that constant use as in running will wear it out more quickly than taking it easy.  But no.  Actually, knee cartilage repairs itself in response to the pressure applied when it is used for running or walking. 

This phenomenon goes a long way in explaining why exercise is recommended for people with arthritis.  Keeping the joint moving, lubricated, and messaged with activity is a huge part of amelioration of arthritis. 

What about Walking or Climbing Stairs? 

Yup.  They are good too, for the same reason just mentioned.  But there are a few caveats.  As many of you may have experienced, walking up and down stairs or hills doesn’t feel good on the knees.  Long story short, what can happen is that a person can let the knees take on too much. 

When going up, there can be a tendency to let the knee jut out front and use the muscles around the knee almost exclusively.  Our knee is a very vulnerable joint because of the way it is designed.  In other words, it needs all the help it can get.  When going up, it can help immensely to get more of the body involved, particularly the butt and core.  It can be very useful to focus on using the backside for propulsion, supported by some activation in the core.  Resistance training of the legs, butt and core can help to keep those areas tuned up and ready to protect the knee.

A word about going downhill or down stairs.  It is more difficult to protect your knees going down because of two things.  One is that it is almost impossible to keep your knee from jutting forward into a vulnerable position.  In addition, on the downhill, you have to rely on what they call an eccentric contraction.  Meaning, you are basically braking the motion (so you don’t careen downhill) as your muscles are lengthening.  Even though your muscles are pretty good at this and can generate a fair amount of force, it is hard on them.  They are more likely to break down, tear, and fail to protect the poor old knees. 

So!  What can we get from all this?

1. Running is good.  Keep on truckin’ if you can.  But keep your stride short so that your knees don’t end up too far ahead of you! This causes them to overreach and lose some muscular control.

2. Walking is good.  Keep on truckin’ if you can.  Just don’t go for up and down steep hills too much.

3. Climbing stairs is good.  Just be mindful of using your butt and core as well as your legs.  And, some resistance training of these areas is extremely useful.

4. Remember that movement is what helps arthritis, not lack of movement. 

As usual, it’s “keep moving,” but it can really help to learn the most you can to keep it safe and productive. 


© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: lzf / iStock

Design for Fitness - Personal Assessment

Similar Posts