golf and knee arthritis

Ditch the golf cart if you have knee arthritis

If you’re into sport, chances are you’ve played golf. It’s often the go-to pursuit for so many retired professional sportspersons, and for obvious reasons: it allows you to stay competitive well into later life with minimal strain and stress. The health benefits are manifold, as well: it’s been estimated that you’ll be walking for over six and a half miles while playing the average round of golf, which more than takes care of your daily recommended walking distance.

That is, of course, if you’re not using a golf cart. On the face of it, golf carts are an absolute boon, especially for those of us suffering from knee osteoarthritis. And if you’re already suffering from knee arthritis, wouldn’t forgoing the cart aggravate your ailment even further? According to a study into golf and knee arthritis that has recently been published in America, it seems that the answer is ‘no’.

Having a stroll won’t take its toll

Plenty of golfers suffering from knee arthritis seem to think that golf carts are a life-saver: in the late 80s, 45% of all golf rounds in America were played with a cart. Nowadays, that percentage has rocketed up to 69%. However, the new study – the first of its kind, conducted by the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab and Northwestern Medicine, and presented at the Osteoarthritis Research Society International Annual Meeting in Liverpool in April – demonstrates that playing a round on foot the course provides significantly higher health benefits. More importantly, walking is not associated with increased pain, cartilage breakdown or inflammation.

The study analysed the on-course habits of 15 participants – ten who had knee osteoarthritis and five who were of similar age, but were OA-free. The participants were invited to play 18 holes on foot one day, and then a round with a golf cart on a different day. The research team compared their heart rates to determine the intensity of exercise performed and took blood samples during each round to measure markers of cartilage stress and inflammation.

Dump the cart, exercise your heart

The researchers found that, prior to starting either of the rounds, the participants with knee osteoarthritis had an average pain score of 1.3 (on a scale of 0-10). When they played the round walking the course, they had an average 2.1-point increase in pain score. When they played the round using the golf cart, they experienced on average a 1.5-point increase – a difference that is deemed not clinically significant.

The research team also measured blood-based biomarkers of cartilage stress and inflammation. Although both methods of transportation caused an increase in these markers (as would be expected with regular walking), there was no difference between the rounds.

When walking the course, golfers with knee osteoarthritis spent more than 60% of the round with heart rates in the moderate intensity heart rate zone – which corresponds with other adequate exercise activities. When driving on a cart, however, golfers spent 30% of the round in that range. While this figure is lower, it still fulfils daily exercise recommendations.

So, while walking the course offers the most significant health benefits – and is not the aggravating factor on knee OA as first thought – the study found that riding the course with a golf cart during a round (and the walking that still comes with it) still offers cardiovascular benefits and helps fulfil daily exercise guidelines.

We know what excess body weight does to the joints, particularly the joints of OA sufferers, so the advice is clear: leaving the cart outside the clubhouse is a far better long-term option, because the idea that extended periods of walking is going to shorten your golfing lifespan is nothing to worry about. But the good news is that while walking is better than the cart, using the cart over not playing golf at all is still the better exercise option.