Family history is another predictor of osteoarthritis, and researchers have identified several genes associated with a susceptibility to the disease. “If you have osteoarthritis in your family, you’re more likely to get it no matter what you do,” White says.
This sounds like bad news for me, since osteoarthritis runs in my family, and my dad recently had a hip replacement because of the disease. But White says I can delay or perhaps even prevent getting osteoarthritis by staying active and keeping my weight in check. Running accomplishes both.
Still, it’s important to run wisely, White says. If you try to go from the couch to a marathon without putting in the necessary training, you’re liable to get hurt. Injury ups the risk of osteoarthritis, although developing the disease takes the kind of traumatic injury that tears ligaments or tendons — problems that more commonly occur in sports that involve contact or require sudden changes in direction. Such injuries increase osteoarthritis risk by promoting abnormal mechanics or by creating scarring that can strain the joint, White says, and an injury can deliver a double whammy by forcing a decrease in physical activity that leads to weight gain.
More than 50 percent of people who have a serious knee injury such as a ligament or tendon tear will develop osteoarthritis within 10 years, White says. “If you’ve had a bad knee injury at age 15, chances are you’ll have osteoarthritis at 25.”
While running wasn’t associated with osteoarthritis in the Williams study, other types of exercise, such as soccer and hockey, were linked with a greater risk of developing the disease. “We’re trying to pursue that further,” Williams says.
Given that other activities seem to increase osteoarthritis risk, why does running get a bad rap? Some of it may be schadenfreude, Hutchinson says. “Every time a runner gets osteoarthritis in their knee, all their friends and family say, ‘See? I told you you shouldn’t have run. You did this to yourself,’ ” he says. “But when five non-runners get osteoarthritis, people just say, ‘Well, I guess you’re getting old.’ ”
I am getting older, and even after decades of running, my knees feel better now than they did when I was 20. I hope I never have to quit trail running, and Williams says that if I keep at it, chances are good that I won’t have to stop anytime soon.