Many American arthritis sufferers aren't getting any exercise despite its benefits for reducing pain and improving their quality of life, new research shows.
Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults with arthritis engaged in physical activity in the past month, most often walking, according to a new data analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings were drawn from national health surveys from 2016 through 2018.
"With 33% of U.S. adults with arthritis who are not physically active, there is still room for public health action," said lead researcher Dana Guglielmo of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
And that action starts with frank talk between arthritis patients and their health care providers, she said.
Guglielmo suggested patients ask their doctors about arthritis-friendly physical activities and self-management programs to help ease symptoms such as joint pain.
"Providers should check in with patients about their physical activity levels and talk to them about physical activity and arthritis self-management programs," she added.
Arthritis is the most often reported cause of disability among Americans over age 15.
U.S. National Health Interview Survey data showed that 71% of respondents got their exercise through walking, 13% from gardening and 7% by lifting weights.
Guglielmo urged anyone with arthritis to walk.
"Walking is an ideal physical activity for adults living with arthritis, because it is low-cost, convenient and adaptable to various settings," she said.
To get the most benefit, however, adults with arthritis should engage in an activity that combines aerobic, muscle-strengthening and balance exercises, Guglielmo said.
"Any activity is better than none," she added. "Evidence-based physical activity programs can support adults with arthritis in getting and staying active by helping them overcome common barriers to physical activity. These programs can even improve their mental and physical health and quality of life."
Dr. Jeffrey Schildhorn, an orthopedic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said everyone with arthritis pain should be encouraged to be active.
"People with arthritis ask me what can I do, and I tell them … you want to move your body," he said. "When people stop moving their bodies, they get stiffer, they start quitting, they get fat."
The best way to prevent these consequences is to be active, Schildhorn said. Even people who suffer the most pain can benefit from walking. Being physically active helps keep joints lubricated, he explained.
"Most people with arthritis wake up stiff, and sometimes they wake up in more pain, and as they get going, joints tend to lubricate, they get more mobile and the pain is less," he noted. "So, walking or anything that gets your body moving actually helps."
Schildhorn emphasized that he's not talking about deep squats, but about keeping the body going. Plus, getting outside, getting sunshine and socializing can keep people healthy, he said.
Being inactive can become its own self-defeating loop, Schildhorn said: If you aren't active, you feel worse, and feeling worse makes it less likely that you'll exercise.
"People stop working out, they get stiffer because they spend so much time sitting on a chair with a pillow behind them because it feels better. To me, that is the opposite of health," he said.
Being active can extend the time before a knee or hip replacement is needed.
"What people don't understand is just how valuable physical activity is," Schildhorn said. "It's good for your immune system, it's good for your attitude, it won't wear out the joints faster, and you can cope with the symptoms longer."
When you reach a point when you can't walk as far as you once did because of the pain, then it might be time for surgery, he added.
The study was published Oct. 8 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more about arthritis pain relief, visit the Arthritis Foundation.
SOURCES: Dana Guglielmo, MPH, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Jeffrey Schildhorn, MD, orthopedic surgeon, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Oct. 8, 2021