A lifetime of cycling can lead to less knee pain, new study finds

Cycling has long been proven to be beneficial to both physical and mental health – so much so that GPs in certain parts of the UK can currently prescribe riding a bike to patients in a bid to ease the strain on the National Health Service – and now, a new study has found that a lifetime of cycling is key to preventing knee pain and osteoarthritis as we get older.

According to new research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a group of United States-based academics found that people who cycle are less likely to develop knee pain and knee osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis suffered by 365 million around the world.

Using data gathered by the long-running Osteoarthritis Initiative, an observational study of knee osteoarthritis examining people aged between 45 and 79, the researchers sought to assess the relationship between a history of cycling and the symptomatic and structural outcomes of knee osteoarthritis.

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By taking into account the cycling habits of 2,607 of the study’s participants – such as how often they cycle and the periods in their life in which they most frequently rode a bike – the researchers were able to evaluate the influence of cycling upon the participants’ self-reported knee pain levels, as well as radiographic evidence of knee osteoarthritis.

Comparing this data to people who don’t cycle, the study – the first epidemiological study to assess the effects of cycling on knee health – found that cyclists had a lower prevalence of frequent knee pain and less evidence of knee osteoarthritis, with those who cycled the most during their lifetime even less likely to experience knee pain.

Researchers also noted that the benefit of cycling often is “cumulative” and “should be encouraged” to promote knee health.

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The study’s first author, Grace Lo, an associate professor of medicine at Baylor University in Houston, Texas, told Bicycling that the results indicate that cycling, and especially cycling often and throughout your lifetime, has a strong association with lower osteoarthritis rates. However, Lo noted that the study was limited by the difficulties in tracking the effect of different activities throughout a lifetime if someone engages in other forms of exercise as well as cycling.

“The takeaway is that if people are concerned about knee pain, and especially about osteoarthritis, biking may serve as a prevention method,” she said.

“Also, the more you do this, and the younger you are when you start so that you have more time throughout your life spent cycling, the higher the probability that you’ll see better knee health.”

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According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are several reasons why cycling is beneficial to knee health and can reduce injuries and prevent arthritis.

These include its low-impact nature, the potential to lose or maintain weight, thereby reducing pressure on weight-bearing joints, its ability to strengthen muscles to help support the knees, ankles, and feet, and the reduction of friction in the knee triggered by the pedalling motion.

“The continuous motion that’s part of cycling is very helpful for arthritic joints,” Joseph Garry, the former medical director of the Sports Medicine Clinic at the University of Minnesota, says.

“The more the joint moves through its full range of motion, the more synovial fluid is produced. This lubricates the joint so you move more easily the rest of the day.”


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