Ways to Improve Arthritis Symptoms

African American woman exercising

Find out how a home-based physical activity program for people with arthritis improved people’s symptoms.

Arthritis is a leading cause of work disability among US adults.1 It is important to have safe, effective arthritis physical activity programs that can reach many people at low costs. A study conducted by the University of South Carolina Prevention Research CenterExternal shows that adults with arthritis improved their level of fitness in a home-based physical activity program. The study found improvements in lower body strength and flexibility, pain, fatigue, and stiffness.

What Was the Research Question?

The researchers evaluated the program to learn: Does a 12-week, home-based exercise program for adults with arthritis increase physical activity and improve arthritis symptoms, and is the program safe?

How Was the Study Conducted?

The researchers enrolled more than 197 adults, mainly women, in a home-based, self-directed physical activity program. The goal was to assess the impact on physical activity, arthritis symptoms, and mental and social health. The physical activity program, called First Step to Active HealthExternal, is a 4-step program. It is a downloadable toolkit for participants to develop their own physical activities using guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Each participant received a First Step to Active Health Kit and a folder with 12 weekly self-monitoring logs, stamped return envelopes for the logs, a one-page safety sheet that outlined arthritis specific recommendations, and a calendar. Each kit contained a program manual, a rubber resistance band, and four guides or “steps” with foldouts demonstrating exercises. The manual included self-assessment and other tools to help participants set goals and customize their program.

Each of the four steps emphasized a different exercise:

  • Step 1 heart health;
  • Step 2, flexibility;
  • Step 3, upper and lower body strength; and
  • Step 4, balance

Participants were directed to begin with Step 1 and add the next step as they are comfortable. They were encouraged to add all steps by the end of 12 weeks.

The program also allowed a person to set their own pace and encouraged a gradual increase in intensity. Intensity is a measure of how hard the physical activity feels to the person doing it. For example, if an evening walk does not cause changes in breathing, and having conversation is still easy, then it is likely a low-intensity workout.

The study also tested the effectiveness of the program to increase participants’:

  • Confidence in managing their condition.
  • Physical activity behavior.
  • Physical performance.

The researchers evaluated participants when they first entered the program, 12 weeks later, and again at 9 months.

Community Involvement

The study team reached out to a variety of clinical, community, and public health groups to make them aware of the study and ask for their help recruiting participants. The team provided updates to a Community Advisory Board. The study team also shared a final report with each participant, which included their personal results.

Older man and woman walking in park

Study shows arthritis symptoms improve with a home-based arthritis program.

Bottom-line Impact

Participants in the physical activity group reported an increase in physical activity at 12 weeks and 9 months of about 1 hour per week. The study also found improvements in:

  • lower body strength and flexibility
  • pain
  • fatigue
  • stiffness
  • ability to manage their arthritis.

Their improvements included performance on:

  • chair stands – a measure of lower body strength that assessed the number of times a person could stand up from a sitting position in 30 seconds
  • seated reaches – a measure of lower-body flexibility that assesses distance reached from a seated position
  • the time to complete a 6-minute walk

First Step to Active Health could be used for adults with arthritis in a variety of other settings, including health care practices, worksites, and churches.

Page last reviewed: May 29, 2018
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