Staying active can be difficult in our bustling day-to-day life, but walking is something that’s accessible to almost everyone. Whether it’s walking to and from work or school, going to the shops, or simply taking a relaxing stroll, walking is good for you in a number of ways. Now, a new study adds to this by showing that walking can reduce pain in arthritic knees and even slow the progression of the condition.
There’s almost no end to the health benefits that walking can provide. From stamina and energy to weight control and reducing the risk of stress, diabetes, strokes, and even some forms of cancer, walking is one of the things we don’t do as much as we should. If all this still doesn’t convince you that you need to walk more, this new study offers yet another reason: it keeps the knees healthy.
The study followed 1212 participants, 73% of whom walked for exercise. The participants were aged 50 or older and had been diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis.
Knee osteoarthritis is a type of “wear-and-tear” arthritis that occurs when the cartilage in the knee joint gradually wears away. When someone is diagnosed with the condition, doctors often recommend some type of pain relief — but they also recommend lifestyle changes, particularly in patients who are overweight or inactive. But actual treatments (that slow down the disease and not just act on symptoms) are few and far between.
“Until this finding, there has been a lack of credible treatments that provide benefit for both limiting damage and pain in osteoarthritis,” said Dr. Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, assistant professor of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Baylor, chief of rheumatology at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and first author of the paper.
The team split the participants into two groups: those who walk for sport and those who don’t. They found that in the “walkers” group, even among those who reported pain in the knees when walking, there was an improvement in pain management and arthritis progression. Those who walked had a 40% decrease in the likelihood of experiencing pain. The researchers used X-ray images to assess the progression of the disease. Notably, the results were strongest in the group of people who had arthritis but weren’t yet feeling any pain.
“These findings are particularly useful for people who have radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis but don’t have pain every day in their knees,” said Lo, who also is an investigator at the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness, and Safety at Baylor and the VA. “This study supports the possibility that walking for exercise can help to prevent the onset of daily knee pain. It might also slow down the worsening of damage inside the joint from osteoarthritis.”
Ultimately, researchers recommend walking for virtually everyone suffering from arthritis. If you can do it, it’s probably good for you.
“People diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis should walk for exercise, particularly if they do not have daily knee pain,” advises Lo. “If you already have daily knee pain, there still might be a benefit, especially if you have the kind of arthritis where your knees are bow-legged.”
Of course, walking is much easier (and more pleasant) if you have nice places to walk in. Governments are slowly starting to recognize the benefits of walking for mental and physical health and, in some instances, are actively trying to reshape cities to make them more walkable — because let’s face it, many of our cities are built for cars more than for people.
Walking is more prevalent in European cities, where dense residential areas mix with commercial areas and are generally better served by public transportation. In the US, few cities are truly walkable. Walkable cities are better for people’s health and for the economy — because when people walk more, they tend to spend more and support local businesses. In many ways, investing in walkable cities pays for itself.
We need more walking in our lives, and not only for people with arthritis.
Journal Reference: Grace H. Lo, et al. “Association Between Walking for Exercise and Symptomatic and Structural Progression in Individuals with Knee Osteoarthritis: Data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative Cohort”. Arthritis & Rheumatology, 2022; DOI: 10.1002/art.42241