Exercise Aids Arthritis Patients, Study Says


A person with arthritis who starts exercising can wind up in better general shape than a sedentary person with normal joints, a study indicates. And the exerciser can keep getting better while sedentary counterparts get worse.

“People didn’t think that could happen, but I had known it for years,” said researcher Marian A. Minor of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

But she and other experts cautioned that people with arthritis should get medical advice before starting an exercise program. Improper exercise can make arthritis worse, they said.


At a news conference in Washington, Minor presented preliminary data from her current research. She was studying about 200 sedentary men and women, average age 49, who could walk for at least 10 minutes despite their arthritis, although some used canes.

Half took part in a 16-week introduction to moderate-intensity stretching, walking, stationary biking, aquatics and low-impact aerobic dance, along with some isometrics. The rest, serving as a comparison group, continued their sedentary lifestyle.

After the training ended, the researchers tracked the participants to see who kept exercising and who didn’t. Those who stayed with exercise kept improving, Minor reported.

After one year, arthritis patients who exercised were able to stay on a treadmill for an average of 7.4 minutes before reaching the researchers’ cutoff point, 75% of maximal heart rate. The control group, with less endurance, reached the 75% mark in an average of 5.4 minutes.

After the second year, the exercisers were even more fit, able to last an average of 7.7 minutes, while the control group was still at 5.4 minutes, Minor said.

The researchers also measured the arthritis patients’ ability to use oxygen. At the start of the study, 50% of both groups were, on average, about one-third below what would be expected of a healthy sedentary person, Minor said.


At one year, the exercisers were doing better than healthy sedentary people, while the sedentary people with arthritis were doing worse. Minor said the divergence grew wider in the second year.

There were a lot of dropouts in the program, Minor noted; after two years, fewer than half--about 45--were still exercising. Nonetheless, she said, the study shows that those who stay with exercise can keep getting better despite arthritis.

Minor’s study puts numbers behind her suspicions, which were based on her earlier experiences with people with arthritis who did aquatic exercises.

“We had the rheumatology and physical therapy staff participate with these people, and they had trouble keeping up if they weren’t exercising,” she said.

Health professionals now are trying to encourage people with arthritis to exercise, said researcher Greg Heath of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. That’s a change from as little as five years ago, when exercise was thought to be bad for the joints, he said.

Minor’s work supports the idea that exercise can benefit people with arthritis as it benefits others, said Dr. Steven Abramson, chairman of rheumatology at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York, who was not connected with the study.


But, he said, arthritis patients should have a doctor prescribe an exercise program for them.

People with arthritis must be careful not to overburden the joints that suffer from the disease, Abramson said. If their problems are in the knees, for instance, they should avoid running and instead do something like aquatics. But if the arthritis is in their fingers, they could run, he said.