• New research published in Arthritis & Rheumatology says that walking can improve joint health, particularly in those with knee osteoarthritis.
  • Those with arthritis should start walking before knee pain develops or becomes chronic, as movement works better to prevent aches, rather than treat them.

Walking is often lauded for its many benefits, like better cardiovascular function and improved mood. Now, improved joint health, especially in the knees, can be added to that list, according to a study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology.

Researchers looked at the results of a multiyear observational study, the Osteoarthritis Initiative, which tracked behaviors like exercise type and frequency in people over age 50. Out of more than 1,200 participants, 73 percent walked for exercise, and all had diagnosed knee osteoarthritis. They found that those in the walking group reported significantly less development of knee pain and better function in the joint compared to those who didn’t walk regularly.

This should prompt more people, and their physicians, to consider walking as part of treatment for osteoarthritis, but it also serves as a reminder that prevention is key, according to the study’s first author, Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, M.D., chief of rheumatology at the Baylor College of Medicine.

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“If you can catch people before they get symptoms and get them to walk, this might be very helpful in preventing the development of regular knee pain,” she told Runner’s World. “The opportunity might be already lost once regular knee pain has already occurred.”

For example, participants who already had knee pain at the beginning of the study had the same level of modest improvement in pain levels as those who didn’t walk. That means once you have ongoing, chronic pain, walking won’t offer the same degree of symptom resolution as walking when your issues are less problematic.

However, if you get started with walking early in the osteoarthritis process, it’s likely you won’t see improvements only in your knees, but also your hips, shoulders, and feet, Lo suggested.

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Although the study didn’t look into potential mechanisms for why walking helped prevent pain, other research offers some clues. For example, research in the journal Pain proposed that an activity like walking changes the way pain signals are transmitted in the central nervous system, reducing pain sensitivity. By contrast, sedentary behavior can not only make pain signals stronger, but also block natural opioid receptors, so it’s harder to get relief when pain does occur.

Strengthening your nervous system with walking—or running—can act as a natural pain reliever, even with an issue like osteoarthritis.

If you’re ready to put some miles in as a pain prevention tool, the standard advice to check with your doctor applies here, especially if you want to ramp up your activity level considerably. But it’s worth the effort to make a plan and get your doctor’s okay, said Lo, because it’s easily one of the most available and affordable forms of exercise.

“What’s great about walking is that almost anyone can do it, and there are fewer barriers compared to activities like bicycling or swimming,” she said. “You don’t even need to be particularly fit; just get started and go from there.”

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