Person holding their left knee in pain while on a running trail.
Person holding their left knee in pain while on a running trail.

Does Running Cause Arthritis?

A Northwestern Medicine Study Finds No Direct Link

Whether you’re an avid runner, a weekend warrior or recreational runner, you have likely heard that long-term running can put you at a higher risk for arthritis. However, a recent study conducted by Northwestern Medicine found no direct link between running and arthritis in the knee and hip joints.

These results are encouraging.
— Vehniah Tjong, MD

The study surveyed about 3,800 runners who participated in the 2019 and 2021 Bank of America Chicago Marathons. The average age of participants was around 44, but their ages ranged from 18 to 83. On average, participants said they had been running for about 14 years, averaging 28 miles a week at an average pace of 8 minutes and 52 seconds per mile.

While previous research has focused on elite-level runners, this study included participants who ranged from first-time marathon runners to those with more than 50 marathons under their belt.

“What we found was that the prevalence of arthritis in these running athletes was far less than what we expected,” says Vehniah Tjong, MD, an orthopaedic sports medicine surgeon at Northwestern Medicine and one of the study’s authors. “Based on our study questionnaire, there is no direct link between running history and the risk for arthritis.”

The study also asked participants to report any family history of arthritis, hip or knee pain, surgical history and their running-related history. Researchers asked if participants had been diagnosed with arthritis and if a physician advised them to stop or reduce their running because of their diagnosis.

About Arthritis

  • Arthritis is an umbrella term used to describe joint pain or disease.
  • There are more than 100 types of arthritis.
  • Symptoms include:
    • Swelling and tenderness of one or more joints
    • Stiffness
    • Pain in the joints or ankles
    • Decreased range of motion
  • It usually affects about 25% of people, mainly older adults.

Arthritis Risk Factors

Arthritis affects only 7% of marathon runners. Other factors have a bigger impact on your risk of developing arthritis.

“We know from previous literature that family history, body mass index (BMI), previous surgeries or injuries — even outside the context of running — can predict a likelihood of developing arthritis,” Dr. Tjong says. “We were reassured when our study also confirmed these as risk factors. It matched with the pre-existing literature and had nothing to do with the running history at all.”

This study was presented at the annual American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons meeting and challenges the current school of thought that running causes arthritis.

“These results are encouraging because running and cross training can be quite good for you and may not be detrimental to your joints, if you’re doing it the right way,” says Dr. Tjong.