The Worst Sports for Your Knees, According to Science

Weightlifter competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro
AFP / Pool / Getty Images

Running gets a bad rap for obliterating your knees.

To be fair, research has proven (on more than one occasion) that pounding the pavement can actually help reduce knee inflammation and osteoarthritis, as long as you use simple form tweaks like leaning forward and taking shorter strides. But even if you’re a professional runner with impeccable form, you might not be able to prevent the damage from all that impact, according to new research published in the Journal of Athletic Training.

And runners aren’t the only athletes who risk knee issues.

Elite-level athletes who play soccer, run long distance, compete in Olympic weightlifting, or wrestle are 3-7 times more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis in their knees than comparably elite basketball players, boxers, or track and field athletes, researchers found.

In the study, researchers conducted a systematic review of six databases, analyzing the link between sport and osteoarthritis among nearly 3,800 athletes. In general, about 45% of athletes suffer knee osteoarthritis—but that risk increases to 57% among athletes with knee injuries, and rises to 61% among former athletes who become obese, the researchers say. The osteoarthritis risk is correlated with a sport’s intensity, the researchers say—sports like running and weightlifting place higher demands on knee joints, while soccer and wrestling often involve knee twisting under stress.

To be fair, this study was conducted in elite athletes. If you’re an average weekend warrior trying to build more muscle, your knees aren’t likely going to suffer under the extraordinary weight an Olympic weightlifter is trying to explosively drop under. And if you’re a recreational runner, your knees aren’t going to be under the level of strain that professional marathoners or ultramarathoners put on their legs.

Another caveat: The researchers couldn’t garner data on a large group of female athletes, nor did they reference men and women playing sports at a non-elite level—so these findings aren’t all-encompassing.

However, if you do compete in any of the above high-risk sports, the researchers recommend working on preventative exercises to lower your odds of injury. If you notice that your knees crack and pop or become painful during exercise, work on foam rolling regularly, improving quad and hamstring flexibility, adding more extensive warmups, and strengthening the stabilizing muscles around your joints.

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