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The Impact of Walking and Running on Joint Health

Regular exercise is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. In all walks of life, movement is key! When it comes to joint health, orthopedic specialists emphasize the importance of weight-bearing exercises such as walking and running.

Movement and Joint Health:

Regular movement, including activities like walking, has numerous positive effects on joint health (shared below). Weight-bearing exercises stimulate bone growth and prevent conditions like osteoporosis. According to Wolf's Law, bones become thicker and stronger in response to stress, making them less likely to fracture. Walking provides the necessary stress to promote bone density and strength.

Benefits of walking:

  • decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease
  • decrease your resting heart rate
  • improve bone quality
  • improve sleep
  • decrease stress and pain
  • boost immunity
  • improve memory

Physical Therapist, Rebecca Ayers, shares " I often recommend my patients with neck and shoulder pain go for a daily walk to improve blood flow and tissue perfusion which in turn relieves pain. An added bonus is that exercise often improves memory and learning- if you run through your flashcards in your head while on a walk or a run, you just might perform better on your test. "

Considerations for Walking and Running:

Before walking or running, you should do a short warm-up to get your circulation going and prepare your body for movement. This can include heel raises, hip circles, trunk rotation, and dynamic stretches. Before starting a walking program there are no requirements other than being cleared by your doctor to walk. You should be aware of your environmental hazards such as slick pavement from rain or snow, fallen leaves, uneven pavement, lighting, and proper clothing. 

Before considering running as a form of exercise, it is crucial to recognize that running is primarily a single-leg exercise. You need to consider the demands that running places throughout the body, and strengthen your core muscles in addition to the lower extremity. Prior to running, you should be able to maintain proper motor control with single-leg squats, control your landing with a hop, and perform at least 20 single-leg heel raises with good form. If you are recovering from an injury, planning to return to sport, or are looking for preventive measures there are numerous tests that physical therapists can perform to determine if you are ready to return to/or get started with running. After your walk or run, be sure to perform a proper cool down to allow your body to return to its resting state including static stretches.

Pros and Cons of Running vs. Walking:

Both running and walking offer significant advantages when it comes to overall health. They help reduce stress, improve sleep quality, decrease body fat, enhance heart health, and promote better blood flow throughout the body. Interestingly, the benefits of walking can also extend to the upper body, making it an excellent choice for individuals with neck or shoulder pain. 

Running, specifically, offers additional cardiovascular benefits. It can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels while increasing stroke volume and oxygen flow. These physiological changes lead to a lower resting heart rate and improved overall efficiency of the body.

Weight Loss and Movement:

When it comes to weight loss goals, both running and walking can have a positive impact on metabolism and overall well-being. Running, in particular, can aid in weight loss by utilizing carbohydrates and fats as energy sources. However, it is crucial not to underfuel before a run. Consuming easily digestible carbohydrates like pasta, oatmeal, or sweet potatoes prior to a run provides the necessary energy.

For women, it is important to refuel with protein within 30 minutes after a run to aid in recovery. Optimal post-run protein sources include fish, meat, eggs, dairy, and beans. It is advisable not to combine a low-carb or low-fat diet with taking up running simultaneously.

Balancing Walking and Running for Optimal Health:

To maximize the benefits of joint health and overall well-being, finding a balance between walking and running is key. One method involves alternating periods of running and walking, allowing individuals to gradually build endurance while minimizing the risk of injury or knee pain. Many cities, including Charlotte, Mooresville, Winston-Salem, and more, offer group programs or apps that provide interval training options for those interested in trying this approach.

Walking and running are both excellent forms of exercise that positively impact joint health. Regular movement helps strengthen bones, improve joint flexibility, and promote overall well-being. Whether you prefer walking or running, it is essential to listen to your body, strengthen supporting muscles, and strike a balance that works best for you. By incorporating these activities into your routine, you can enjoy the numerous benefits they offer for joint health and beyond.

Thank you to Rebecca Ayers, PT, DPT, OCS from OrthoCarolina's South Park Physical & Hand Therapy for providing this blog information!


This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. If you are seeking specific orthopedic advice or assistance, please consult with your OrthoCarolina physician or locate one in your area through OrthoCarolina’s website at www.OrthoCarolina.com.

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