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Stretching and other physical activity can help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis. Sabrina Bracher/Getty Images
  • Osteoarthritis usually appears in the knees, hips, and hands.
  • Researchers say that physical activity doesn’t increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee.
  • In fact, they say some exercises can actually help reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Researchers say physical activity is not linked with the development of osteoarthritis in the knee.

In an analysis published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, researchers said they found the amount of energy expended during exercise and the duration of physical activity did not increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

“Knowing that the amount of physical activity and time spent doing it is not associated with the development of knee osteoarthritis is important evidence for both clinicians and the public who may need to consider this when prescribing physical activity for health,” Thomas Perry, BSc, PhD, a co-lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Oxford in England, said in a press release.

In undertaking their analysis, researchers drew on data from six studies involving 5,065 participants. Some participants had osteoarthritis in their knees while others didn’t. All participants were over the age of 45.

The participants were followed for a period of between 5 and 12 years.

Researchers found that whole-body physical activity in sports, walking, or cycling did not have an association with knee osteoarthritis.

The benefits of physical activity on cardiovascular health are well established, but until now the impact of physical activity on osteoarthritis was unclear.

“The existing literature on this topic has been mixed but generally supports this result,” Dr. Matthew Baker, clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University in California, told Healthline.

“Physical activity is complex and difficult to measure. Prior work suggests that vigorous exercise for greater than 4 hours per day likely increases the risk of developing knee osteoarthritis, but moderate levels of physical activity may not,” he said.

Osteoarthritis typically occurs in the hip, knees, and hands.

In osteoarthritis, the cartilage between joints wears away and the bone beneath changes.

This can cause pain and swelling as well as feelings of stiffness. In some people, osteoarthritis can be so severe it prevents them from doing their daily activities.

“Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and the leading cause of lower extremity disability in older adults. It accounts for more than 40 percent of all hospitalizations [for arthritis], approximately 20 percent of outpatient visits due to any type of arthritis, and it is one of the major contributors to the global years lived with disability. In short, osteoarthritis is very debilitating,” Baker said.

More than 32 million adults in the United States live with osteoarthritis. Experts say there are a number of risk factors associated with the disease.

“Osteoarthritis is a multifactorial disease, and it has certainly been linked with age, gender, obesity, prior joint disease as well as surgery, genetics, and metabolic diseases,” Dr. Joseph N. Liu, an orthopaedic surgeon with the Keck School of Medicine of USC in California, told Healthline.

“One of the major risk factors that we think about in terms of progression of [osteoarthritis] or at least symptomatic arthritis is the amount of load that’s across the joint,” he added.

“Exercise has been associated with decreasing weight or weight optimization, so if you can decrease your weight or optimize your weight, you’re going to decrease your load or impact across the joint long term,” Liu said.

While there’s no cure for osteoarthritis, it can be managed. And exercise plays an important role in managing symptoms.

“It is believed that by improving the musculature around a joint, and controlling movement, the stresses through the joint are distributed more evenly (and slightly absorbed upon impact). Research shows that movement reduces pain and stiffness, two of the biggest symptoms with [osteoarthritis],” Lynn Millar, PhD, PT, FACSM, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine, told Healthline.

“The risks of not exercising are worse than the risks of exercising, such as heart disease. Arthritis does not kill. Heart disease does,” Millar added.