In another one of those findings that threatens to overturn conventional wisdom -- and leaves people pondering what they should do -- a new study finds that adults 50 and older who were consistent runners over a 14-year period had 25 percent less musculoskeletal pain during that period than non-runners did.
Which is to say running, long considered an unsafe and unwise exercise choice for adults because of danger to vulnerable joints and bones, appears to offer some protection from those very dangers.
First, the study: Stanford University researchers followed 866 men and women, drawing on members of a local running club and matched controls. Of the whole group, 565 were dubbed Ever-Runners (who ran consistently throughout the study period) and 301 were Never-Runners (non-runners or former runners, but not necessarily sedentary or unfit). The researchers conducted annual surveys to measure, among other things, the participants' pain.
Regardless of how they sliced the data, the researchers found that regular runners reported about 25 percent less musculoskeletal pain than the controls. The benefit was seen in participants through the age of 76. Results appear in the current issue of the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy.
But don't run too far with this yet. There are several potentially confounding factors: People with higher pain thresholds may be more likely to become runners; the running group is less likely to include people with chronic joint pain; and running can produce psychological benefits, including those triggered by the much-ballyhood endorphins, that may result in lower pain reporting.
Still, the researchers conclude that older people's bodily pain can be decreased by regular exercise, including running -- and that the overall physical benefits of running can outweigh the downsides.
"I tell people, 'Don't be afraid of running,' " said Tim Church, medical director of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, who was not involved with the study. Adults starting a fitness program should not avoid running for fear of injury or arthritic pain, he said. But don't try to force yourself to run. The idea is to find something you like and will stay with, he said.
"The most important point is that we should be physically active, ideally on a daily basis," said study author Bonnie Bruce of Stanford. This may mean "short bouts of walking, using stairs instead of elevators or participating in running, cycling or swimming."
The Ever-Runners spent more time per week engaged in vigorous exercise of all sorts than the Never-Runners, so it is tricky to tease out a specific association with running alone, Bruce said.
"The people who tend to get hurt while running are those who are just getting started or those who are stepping things up a notch," said Frank Kelly, an orthopedic surgeon in Macon, Ga., and a runner for more than 40 years.
Kelly says this and other findings suggest that consistent, moderate running protects the joints -- by improving muscle strength and the health of bones and connective tissues. It also helps maintain a healthy weight, which diminishes risk or pain from osteoarthritis. But if running causes pain, choose another form of aerobic activity to achieve fitness.
-- Heidi Splete Johnstone
Heidi Splete Johnstone is a Washington-area medical writer and runner. Moving Crew chief John Briley returns next week. Comments? Send e-mail to email@example.com. And jog by our live chat today, at 11 a.m. on washingtonpost.com, with your questions and comments on fitness and exercise.