Cycling Associated With Less Knee Pain Later in Life, Study Says

  • A large-scale observational study found that those who ride more frequently reported lower knee pain levels and lower likelihood of knee osteoarthritis.
  • Researchers say the earlier you start cycling, the more likely you’ll boost your knee health.

Cycling can provide several benefits for your wellbeing, from boosting your heart health to supporting your cognition. Now a new study suggests that cycling may even help prevent knee osteoarthritis as you age, a condition that affects 365 million people and is the most common joint for osteoarthritis, according to the World Health Organization.

Published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the research involved data from a larger study called the Osteoarthritis Initiative, a long-term observational study of knee osteoarthritis that’s been in progress for 14 years and includes people from age 45 to 79. Researchers looked at 2,607 participants who provided information on their bicycling frequency at different age intervals, as well as self-reported knee pain levels, and radiographic evidence of knee osteoarthritis.

Comparing that data to non-cyclists, the researchers found that cyclists had a lower prevalence of frequent knee pain and less evidence of knee osteoarthritis. They noted that this is the first epidemiologic study to evaluate the effects of a lifetime history of cycling on knee health.

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One limitation of the study is that it’s difficult to track the effect of different exercises throughout a lifetime if someone engages in multiple forms of activity, according to first author Grace Lo, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Baylor University. However, she told Bicycling that the results do indicate that cycling, specifically, has a strong association with lower osteoarthritis rates, particularly for those who cycle often.

“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.”

In terms of why cycling may be so beneficial, less impact is one part of it but not the only factor. Other variables include increased synovial fluid (which can reduce friction) in the knee joints due to the motion of pedaling, as well as stronger muscles around the joints that can provide support through the full range of motion, according to the Arthritis Foundation. These factors also come into play with reducing injuries and preventing arthritis in the ankles, feet, and hips, the organization added.

If you already have knee pain or osteoarthritis, cycling that’s done under the supervision of your doctor or physical therapist may help alleviate the intensity or duration of pain, said Neel Anand, M.D., director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. He was not part of the recent study, but he often recommends cycling to those who struggle with knee issues or want to reduce arthritis risk.

“Because of the way cyclists balance their center of mass while riding, that can build core strength, and there’s a ripple effect from that on improved joint health throughout the lower body,” Anand told Bicycling. “Another plus is that you won’t only be supporting your body when you’re riding. Cycling can help you have better alignment and range of motion in general, so you’ll better support your knees and other joints in everyday movement, too.”

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Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food. 

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