Biking Associated With Less Arthritis and Knee Pain

  • Biking is associated with less knee pain and arthritis, according to a recent study.
  • Researchers found that the more time a person spent bicycling in their lifetime, the less likely they were to have knee pain and signs of osteoarthritis later in life.
  • Physical therapists explain what exercise may be best for your knees.

As we age, it’s essential to incorporate exercises that are low impact and easy on joints, especially if you struggle with arthritis pain. New research shows that a particular workout may help prevent knee pain and arthritis altogether: biking.

A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at how bicycling over a lifetime impacts knee pain and arthritis. This was a retrospective study within the Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI), where researchers investigated over 2,600 OAI participants in their 60s with complete data on bicycling, knee pain, and x-ray evidence of knee osteoarthritis.

Participants filled out a self-administered questionnaire to classify bicycling during four time periods throughout a participant’s lifetime (ages 12-18, 19-34, 35-49, and > 50 years old). They researchers used this information to evaluate the effect of prior bicycling (any history of biking, history for each time period, number of periods cycling) on three outcomes at the 48-month OAI visit. The three outcomes were frequent knee pain, x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis, and symptomatic osteoarthritis.

Results showed that people who biked at any point in their lives were 17% less likely to develop knee pain, and 21% less likely to develop arthritis with pain in the knee joint, than those who did not. Even more, researchers found that the more time people spent biking, the less likely they were to have knee pain and signs of osteoarthritis later in life. The study also suggests that the exercise may help build muscle around the knees without jarring the joints—which could happen with activities like running.

So, how may biking specifically prevent knee pain and arthritis? Since it is a low-impact activity, it puts less stress on the knee joints compared to high-impact exercises like running, says Alex Aksanov, P.T., D.P.T., M.H.S., founder of Stay Active Physical Therapy. “This helps avoid wear and tear on the knee joints,” he explains. Biking also promotes joint mobility by keeping the knee joint moving throughout its full range of motion, which helps maintain flexibility and prevent stiffness often associated with arthritis, Aksanov points out.

Additionally, biking aids in the circulation of synovial fluid within the knee joint, says Aksanov. “Synovial fluid lubricates the joint, reducing friction and providing essential nutrients to the cartilage, which helps in preventing the degeneration associated with arthritis.” Lastly, Aksanov notes that the rhythmic and low-impact nature of biking can help nourish the cartilage by promoting the flow of nutrients and oxygen. “This helps in maintaining the health of the cartilage, which is crucial for joint health,” he explains.

Biking also strengthens the muscles around the knees, particularly the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles, says Aksanov. “Stronger muscles help stabilize and support the knee joint, reducing the risk of injury and easing the strain on the joints.” Aksanov continues: “The resistance encountered while pedaling, whether from the bike’s gears or terrain, provides a consistent workload for the muscles. This resistance forces the muscles to work harder and leads to muscle hypertrophy and growth over time.”

But, the muscle-building powers of bicycling are only as impactful as how hard you’re pedaling, says Karena Wu, P.T., D.P.T., clinical director and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy. Biking can build muscles in the leg joint if the resistance is high enough, she explains. “If you have to push hard on the pedals and move at a specific rate (i.e. not very slow), you will contract the muscles more, which will build muscle strength around the knee joint,” she says.

When it comes to biking versus running, there’s no contest when it comes to the best exercise for your knees. Biking is low-impact, and places less stress on the joints, offering a smooth, controlled motion that maintains joint health without excessive strain, says Aksanov. “The resistance in biking can be adjusted to ensure balanced muscle engagement, avoiding imbalances that might contribute to knee pain.”

In contrast, running is a high-impact activity where each stride subjects the knees to significant force, increasing the risk of knee pain and injuries such as runner’s knee, Aksanov explains. “While running strengthens knee supporting muscles and burns more calories, its repetitive impact can lead to wear and tear on knee cartilage.” Overall, biking poses a lower risk of knee injuries and promotes joint mobility and flexibility, making it a better option for individuals with knee pain, Aksanov advises.

The bottom line

This study suggests that biking, over the long term, may be associated with less breakdown and wear and tear in the knee joints, says Wu. “This has been demonstrated as less reported complaints of knee pain, less evidence of knee osteoarthritis on [x-rays], and less symptomatic arthritis on [x-rays].” These results are important for individuals to know so that they can try to avoid knee issues in the future and understand another benefit of this type of exercise, Wu explains.

Overall, the study underscores the importance of regular physical activity and suggests that incorporating bicycling into one’s routine can be a proactive measure to support long-term knee health and a reduction of osteoarthritis, Aksanov adds.

Still, while biking can be a fantastic activity for individuals to prevent knee pain and arthritis, it’s essential for individuals to listen to their bodies, start gradually, and consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice and recommendations, says Aksanov.

Headshot of Madeleine Haase

Madeleine, Prevention’s assistant editor, has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD, and from her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience—and she helps strategize for success across Prevention’s social media platforms. 

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