It’s a question that plagues many people with joint problems, and it is also a question which is incredibly hard to answer in any definitive manner because there are so many types of arthritis.
The general opinion used to be that regardless of what type of arthritis you had, you should not run on a treadmill as your knees would take more impact than they would outside and this could damage the cartilage further.
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Are Treadmills Bad for Arthritic Knees? Well, it Depends
However if we think about running (or perhaps more appropriately “stumbling”) outside on softer or uneven surfaces then yes some extra wear on the arthritic knee might occur but it would only be slightly more than what happens when running on concrete or solid floors inside.
Although I don’t recommend that someone trains through their pain, if the person is actually able to run then increasing their level of training will increase cartilage production, but for someone with a lot of pain then running outside might not be so easy or practical.
The other thing that has to be taken into consideration is what type of arthritis you have and how advanced it is. You see there are several different types of arthritis such as osteoarthritis (the most common form), rheumatoid arthritis, gout etc. and each one varies in the amount of damage done and can affect how much movement/use your joints get.
For example if you had advanced osteoarthritis affecting your knees then even walking may cause significant amounts extra wear on the joint if it was painful to do so, and if you had very little movement in the joint then keeping up with a good hydrating diet would be extremely difficult.
But for most people with osteoarthritis, running just on concrete or solid floors is going to cause greater damage than what happens when running outside on grass and other soft surfaces.
You see when you run outside the impact that your body takes from the ground is less than when running inside, although surfaces like grass are a lot softer the overall amount of pressure you take over time is considerably less.
It’s similar to how someone who has very arthritic hands with lots of damage to their joints tends not to do any vigorous manual labour or physically demanding tasks because they may get injured more easily and cause more wear on the joints. But for most people this isn’t really an issue as most don’t have access to swimming pools filled with bodies…er I mean sand!
Treadmills: pros and cons
I can’t see a lot of the cons associated with treadmills for people with arthritis. The only real downside is that some individuals may not be able to use it because they cannot put enough weight on their knees but this will just come down to the severity of the damage and whether you have any pain when walking.
Now if someone has rheumatoid arthritis then it comes down entirely as to what type of medication they are using in order to control symptoms, many medications that treat rheumatoid arthritis do seem to reduce cartilage production and leaving them behind might help cartilage regeneration (although I don’t recommend stopping your medication without consulting a doctor first). However some medications like methotrexate appear to increase cartilage breakdown so running might be a bad idea.
Then there is the issue of what type of treadmill you would use, there are those cheap models which you get at any super market and to be honest if they came with a guarantee saying that they wouldn’t hurt your joints I’d still rather go for the cheaper model! Other treadmills let you adjust the incline level and some even have programmes where the machine will automatically adjust itself as well. This makes it easier to exercise on as both the speed and inclines can be altered while magically keeping in time with each other.
Most people who have arthritis tend not to have much muscle mass around their joints so working out using low impact methods like swimming, cycling or rowing machines might be better than using treadmills. Apart from the fact that it’s good for your joints you are also working out much more of your body than you would on a treadmill, which is essential for those who have osteoporosis (loss of bone density) as well as osteoarthritis.
Treadmill workouts with arthritis
I’ve found that the best thing to do when working out on a treadmill is not to be too ambitious. Now I know that might sound odd given that most of us go to the gym in order to try and burn as much fat off our bodies as possible but it’s easy to get yourself into a situation where you are doing so much extra work than what you can handle.
To begin with I recommend walking/jogging on the treadmill for about 20-45 minutes (depending on fitness), at an incline of 1-3 percent, which should be suitable for most people with arthritis. If your knees start hurting then drop it down a bit until they don’t hurt anymore. When I first started running again my knees were killing me so I dropped the incline down to level 3 percent and worked my way up.
Now as you get more fit over time you can alter the speed which will help keep things interesting, although it is recommended that once your heart rate reaches 75-80 percent of it maximum capacity (for me this would be at about 2-3 mph) you should stop until your heart rate drops below 70 percent. This ensures that you are working out hard enough without leaving yourself prone to injuries like pulled muscles and snapped tendons due to overexertion.
You’ll also be able to run for longer periods of time before getting tired, this gives you the option of running at a much slower rate than normal but with the increased endurance from training at a higher rate for longer.
There’s also the option of getting a heart monitor set so you can see how hard you are working out while running, this is especially good if your arthritis was caused by weight gain as once you get in better shape and lose some excess body fat then using a machine like the treadmill can actually help you burn off more calories than just normal walking!
When using a treadmill make sure you have good form, with your back straight and head up. Make sure that you aren’t leaning too far forward or holding onto the rails for support. Don’t lock out your knees to stop them from bouncing, this can lead to shin splints as well as putting added pressure on your knees. When starting off slow down when getting near the end of the belt otherwise you might trip up or fall over.
Never try and get out of a moving treadmill either by jumping off or pressing something like the emergency stop button if you happen to suddenly feel ill at any time while running (i.e vomiting). This is because even if something goes wrong it’s going too fast for you to be able to jump away from it especially if you have problems with your legs, i.e arthritis in the knees. I know that some machines have a lever at the side of them which can be pushed to stop the belt from moving but while running simply stepping off onto the side isn’t sufficient enough and you will most likely end up being caught under it or tripping over yourself.
Not only does exercising regularly help your joints stay healthy there’s also evidence to suggest that exercise can delay or even prevent osteoarthritic changes in people who are already showing signs of joint degeneration (from studies). On top of that regular runners/joggers slash their risk of heart disease by at least 50%, even when taking into account smoking, age and BMI! Running is also said to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles which can help prevent posture problems or even a slipped disc.
There are of course some risks associated with jogging/running, which include stress fractures [for example in your foot] however these are pretty rare when compared to more common injuries (like ankle sprains) which you can get running on pavement. In fact, it’s been shown that walking or jogging 10 minutes per day helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 15 percent and may decrease the risk of cancer too! The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week for healthy adults who suffer from arthritis but if you’re just getting started I’d recommend talking to your doctor about what might be for you.
No matter what you do remember that regular exercise can help reduce the pain caused by arthritis as well as giving you more energy and a better quality of life in general so if your joints are sore then find something that works out for you and stick with it!
Other exercise options
- Exercise bikes can be great: they are low impact so will put less strain on the joints that running does, and they are able to be used both inside and outside too. However I would advise using one with a higher minimum speed than normal as it will help put less strain on the knees.
- Another option is swimming which also provides cardiovascular benefits without extra weight or pressure being placed on the joints at all! Just take care when you get out of the pool because it can be quite easy to push yourself over due to impaired proprioception (sensing of body movement) in your ankles and knees.
- Rowing machines are another good low impact exercise although again like treadmills they do require some amount of leg strength which may not be present if you have very weak arthritic knees. What’s great about rowing is that you can do a wide range of different leg exercises on it, from squats to toe raises!
- Weight training is great for those who have healthy knees and want to build up their body muscles. This may not be suitable if you already have weakened joints but can prove useful in strengthening the muscles which support your knee. Even doing some stretches or yoga after weight training can help lengthen out the tendons surrounding your knees so they don’t tighten up on you.
So what should I do?
If you are struggling with arthritis in your knees then remember that there is help available! There are plenty of things you can do yourself (which we will be covering either now or soon) or else if all else fails consider checking out physiotherapy.
Most physiotherapy clinics in the US offer one-on-one sessions as well as group exercise classes which are great to get other people involved with and can help motivate you! Some physiotherapists also offer rehabilitation programs where you go twice a week for several months, getting more active and slowly working up towards regular exercise (like running).
Running on a treadmill is bad for arthritic knees, however that’s not to say that all forms of exercise are just as bad. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence showing that exercising regularly will do your joints good, not harm them. There are some things to look out for when exercising though such as avoiding concrete surfaces or anything slippery but overall if you’ve got arthritis then just try to do a little bit of exercise every day, no matter how small. The only way you’ll be able to tell if something hurts is by trying it out so get on the bike or out for a jog and let me know what happens!
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