Does Running Damage or Strengthen Your Bones? New Research May Answer This Enduring Question

See how running can improve your bone health.

For decades, we have heard that running is bad for your knees.

However, recent research reveals promising news for the running community, suggesting that running might actually strengthen our bones.

But what does this mean for our long-term bone health, particularly regarding conditions like osteoporosis, which weakens bones and increases the risks of fractures, especially as we age?

Fortunately, running demonstrates promise in aiding the prevention of osteoporosis.

So, what’s the verdict on the link between running and bone density? Let’s explore the science behind the myth and uncover the truth regarding running and its impact on bone health.

A group of people running.

Recently, a peer-reviewed study,1The effect of regular running on the bone tissue of middle-aged men and women – The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 2024 Jan 23. (n.d.). Www.minervamedica.it. Retrieved March 12, 2024, from https://www.minervamedica.it/en/journals/sports-med-physical-fitness/article.php?cod=R40Y9999N00A24012301 “The Effect of Running on the Bone Tissue of Middle-Aged Men and Women” delved deep into this important relationship.

Published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, researchers looked at the relationship between running and bone health, particularly focusing on the legs.

The study analyzed a group of 322 people aged 36 to 45, 212 of whom were runners and 110 non-runners.

Participants had to meet criteria such as being non-smokers and free from medical issues that would prevent them from exercising.

To participate in the study, runners must have logged at least 10 kilometers per week for six weeks before the tests. Many of the runners had been running for two to five years.

The non-runners in the study had to be people who failed to meet the current World Health Organisation’s physical activity guidelines.2WHO. (2020, November 25). WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Www.who.int. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240015128

The researchers discovered important connections between gender, running volume over time, and stronger leg bones. This was especially true for runners who ran higher mileage.

The study did not, however, find a significant connection between running and increased bone mineral density (BMD) in areas with less weight bearing, such as the spine.

A group of people running in a park.

total cumulative Load

Total cumulative load (TCL) includes both the duration and intensity of running over time.

Specifically, this study found that higher levels of total cumulative load were associated with increased bone mineral content and bone mineral density, showing a positive impact on bone health.

This suggests that runners with higher cumulative loading rates may experience better bone density and leg strength. So that long run and higher weekly mileage during marathon training is not only improving your aerobic fitness and heart health, but also your ability to maintain strong bones for years to come.

But how exactly does this happen?

Load stimulates bone growth by sending signals to bone cells called osteoblasts. These cells then start making more bone tissue, which makes your bones stronger and denser.

It’s like giving your bones a workout—they respond by getting stronger to handle the load. This process also triggers the release of growth hormones that help with bone repair and remodeling, keeping your bones healthy and resilient.

A person lifting weights with a trainer.

Gender Differences & Menopause

Gender played a significant role in the study’s findings.

Specifically, the results indicated that gender influences both bone mineral content and bone mineral density in the legs.

For male and female runners, higher levels of BMC and BMD in the legs were associated with increased total cumulative loading rate. However, this effect was less pronounced in females compared to males.

Physiological differences between genders, such as variations in hormonal profiles and bone structure, may influence the responsiveness of bone tissue to loading.

Since only 13 of the women who participated in this study were premenopausal, perimenopausal, or postmenopausal, researchers could be sure any effects were related to running and bone health rather than menopausal status.

While the researchers made an effort to ensure that the effects of menopause didn’t skew the results, the question remains: What effects does menopause have on bone health?

During menopause, women experience a decline in estrogen levels,3Finkelstein, J. S., Brockwell, S. E., Mehta, V., Greendale, G. A., Sowers, M. R., Ettinger, B., Lo, J. C., Johnston, J. M., Cauley, J. A., Danielson, M. E., & Neer, R. M. (2008). Bone Mineral Density Changes during the Menopause Transition in a Multiethnic Cohort of Women. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism93(3), 861–868. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-1876 which accelerates bone loss and increases the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

While men may naturally have higher bone mineral density than women, the key takeaway is that engaging in weight-bearing activities like running can benefit bone health in both men and women by promoting bone remodeling and increasing bone density.

A person running in a park.

other Ways To Improve Bone Health

The study also identified several risk factors for poor bone health.

Addressing these risk factors4Salari, N., Ghasemi, H., Mohammadi, L., Behzadi, M. hasan, Rabieenia, E., Shohaimi, S., & Mohammadi, M. (2021). The global prevalence of osteoporosis in the world: a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-021-02772-0 through lifestyle changes can help promote optimal bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Significant Risk Factors

  1. Weight: Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for bone health. Both obesity and being underweight can negatively impact bone density and increase the risk of fractures. To keep your bones strong, maintain a healthy weight by eating well and exercising regularly.
  2. Smoking: Everyone knows smoking is bad for your lungs, yet it is less known that it also has detrimental effects on bone health, including reduced bone density and impaired bone healing.
  3. Alcohol Consumption: Drinking too much can affect your body’s ability to absorb calcium, which is crucial for strong bones. Try to limit your alcohol intake, and if you do indulge, drink plenty of water.
  4. Dietary Calcium Deficiency: Inadequate calcium intake, a key mineral for bone strength, can compromise bone health and increase the risk of osteoporosis. Ensure you eat calcium-rich foods, like dairy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods. If you struggle to get enough calcium from your diet alone, talk to your doctor about options.
  5. Long-Term Glucocorticoid Use: Prolonged use of glucocorticoid medications, such as cortisone and prednisone, can lead to bone loss and increase the risk of fractures. If you require long-term glucocorticoid therapy for a medical condition, work closely with your healthcare provider to monitor your bone health and explore strategies to minimize the impact.
A person running on the road.

While this study provides valuable insights into the relationship between running and bone health in middle-aged adults, it also has several limitations to note:

The main issue is that it’s a snapshot study, so it can’t prove that one thing causes another, only that they’re related. Studies with longer-term follow-up periods would provide valuable insights into the best strategies for promoting skeletal health in middle-aged adults.

Additionally, the study did not assess the influence of dietary factors such as calcium and vitamin D supplementation, which are known to impact bone health.

Even though the study has some limitations, it suggests that running more can be linked to stronger and denser bones, especially in your legs.

This shows the importance of regular and long-term physical activity for maintaining or slowing the reduction in bone mineral density as individuals age.

In light of the findings, there are clear benefits for everyone, especially those in middle age, to incorporate running into their regular exercise routines.

So it turns out running may actually be good for your knees.

For a jumpstart, check out our Couch to 5K program:

References

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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

2 thoughts on “Does Running Damage or Strengthen Your Bones? New Research May Answer This Enduring Question”

  1. “Since only 13 of the women who participated in this study were premenopausal, perimenopausal, or postmenopausal, researchers could be sure any effects were related to running and bone health rather than menopausal status.”

    Does this mean that there were only 13 women in this study? Surely someone who is of menstruating age is pre-menopausal until they get symptoms of perimenopause, and then 12 months after their last period they are postmenopausal.

    Reply

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