If you think you’re warding off knee pain and joint damage by not exercising, it may be time to stop fooling yourself: A recent Northwestern University study, published in JAMA Network Open, compared the knee health of people who worked out vigorously (such as jogging, swimming, cycling, singles tennis, and aerobic dancing) with those who spent long hours sitting. Both groups, ranging in age from 49 to 79 at the study’s start, were at high risk of developing knee osteoarthritis.
Up to 10 years later, participants who weren’t reluctant to exercise regularly—even despite such factors as a prior knee injury or surgery—were less likely to have developed osteoarthritis than those who shunned regular movement. The researchers’ conclusion? Older adults at high risk of knee osteoarthritis who engage in long-term vigorous activity at a moderate level can continue to work out safely with little risk of joint damage.
Factors that predicted prolonged periods of inactivity included older age, a higher body mass index (BMI), depression, more severe knee pain, and weak quadriceps (the muscles that run down the front of your thigh to help stabilize and support the knee).
What you should do
If you’re currently active but concerned you may be doing damage to your knees, rest assured that you’re likely helping them. If you’ve been sedentary, talk with your doctor about how to add some activity to your day. Start slowly, even if it’s only five to 10 minutes a day, and gradually add another 10 minutes every week or so. A focus on exercises to strengthen your quadriceps, such as performing squats, can be helpful.
This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.