Joint Pain? Stop Running

I saw a Twitter hashtag recently asking what you would tell your thirteen year old self. I think I’d tell me something one of the great yogis said. That the great tragedy of the human condition is the time between cause and effect. Put slightly differently, if I’d known I’d last this long, I’d have taken better care.

I’ve written a little bit here and there about how my earlier years were kind of rough on my body. Particularly bad were karate and all the running and after that, a few years of skiing and hiking in the mountains sure didn’t help. In all, the years spanning my teens right through my mid thirties were, to put it mildly, bad for my joints.

How bad?

Well, I moved to Colorado in 1999, and one of the things about Colorado is that it’s a great place to live if you like to play outdoors. Which I do. I knew I had joint problems, but I really didn’t get just how bad they were until I hiked my first “fourteener” (a mountain whose peak is above 14 000’ elevation). The hike up was fine. The hike back down was hell. I doubt we’d descended more than 2 000’ before my hiking buddy handed me his hiking poles so I could make it back to the car.

I knew I’d overworked my joints over the years, particularly my knees, but I didn’t realize just how badly until then. I was in great shape, the hike, even with the elevation, wasn’t a big deal. But the pain of every single foot strike on the descent showed just how rough my joints were. The next few years didn’t really improve matters.

It was around that time I discovered the miracles of hot tubs, glucosamine and Vitamin I…ibuprofen. After hiking, after skiing, after tennis with my lovely wife, even after a day of fishing the mountain streams, I’d have to soak my aching knees and pop a couple of Advils before bed. By the time I hit 35 I was taking daily glucosamine just to stay functional.

Then we went to China to teach English. What a trip that was.

We were living in the back of beyond; we could walk five minutes and see rice paddies being plowed with ox drawn plows. The nearest visible signs of the western world (McDonalds, Wal Mart, etc.) were three hours away.

Stick with me, this isn’t just a trip down memory lane.

We were in a town so small you could walk across it in ½ an hour, so that’s what we did, we walked. Want to go our for dinner? Walk. Want to go shopping? Walk. If we needed to leave the campus, we hoofed it.

And because there were no western stores, there was nowhere for me to get good running shoes. Remember, my knees were bad, so I needed really good shoes for running. Since I couldn’t get them, I stopped running. So no running, and the university had no real exercise facilities (not as we knew them), so what was a fitness nut to do?

Well, as it has so many times in my life fate, dropped in to give me a present. I met Miller, who not only grew to be a great friend, but was from a well respected Tai Chi family. He agreed to be my teacher, and every day for 9 months I dragged my sorry carcass out of bed at 5:30 for an hour of Tai Chi.

Tai Chi and yoga share, if nothing else, this; when done seriously, by serious people, they are hard. My first Tai Chi lesson was one, yes, ONE move. And from learning that one move (properly), my legs hurt for a week. And I persisted in this for the rest of the year we were there.

It was amazing. Walking and doing Tai Chi gave me the exercise I needed, with no impact on my joints. Yes, when we went on vacation and hiked up a mountain the hike back down was still tough on my knees, but it was bearable. And I got my first lesson in “you can be fit without high impact.” And I did it all in the absence of Advil and glucosamine. Seriously, we were beyond the back of beyond.

That was our first trip to China. Our second was a semester in Beijing, which was where we discovered yoga and Pilates. Like the year in the south, we walked everywhere and, combined with alternating yoga and Pilates six days a week, I was in the best shape of my life.

And my knees didn’t hurt.

It turns out that the old Groucho Marx joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” “Well, then stop doing it,” contains a kernel of truth. The high impact exercises were hurting my joints, and stopping doing them stopped hurting my joints. Go figure.

Then back home I got seriously into Bikram Yoga and began wearing a heart rate monitor to class. I discovered that I was hitting the three pillars of fitness; strength, flexibility and aerobics:

  1. I gained over 20 lbs from doing yoga (no other resistance training) while dropping over an inch from my waste.
  2. In less that one year, starting at the tender age of 43, I gained over 6 inches of flexibility. I went from barely being able to reach my mid-shins, to being able to put my palms flat to the floor.
  3. I tracked my heart rate; resting heart rate 60, peak heart rate 170, with 1000 to 1400 calories burned in a 90 minute class.

Best of all, for over 12 years, from starting Tai Chi in 2004, through all the yoga, I stopped needing glucosamine. Even better, I stopped taking Advil every time I exercised. I simply didn’t need them because I had discovered a way to stay fit and healthy, without the harmful pounding on my cartilages from running.

Eventually my youth caught up to me. The time between cause (high impact exercises) and effect (osteoarthritis) turned out to be about 30 years. The old yogi nailed it.

Yoga is often touted for the benefits it brings to our lives outside the realm of pure fitness, and I might even have written a word or two on the topic. But I think maybe we should remember to shout the fitness benefits, too.