By Amy Norton
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older people with arthritis are more likely to hang on to good physical function if they exercise on a regular basis, a new study suggests.
In a two-year study of more than 5,700 older adults with arthritis, researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago found that men and women who were consistently active were less likely to develop physical limitations that interfered with their day-to-day lives.
Adults who did not get regular, vigorous exercise -- which included nearly two-thirds of the study population -- had twice the risk of functional decline as their active peers, the researchers report in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.
Functional decline refers to problems with daily activities such as walking a short distance, preparing meals, shopping, bathing and dressing. Arthritis is one of the leading causes of such disabilities among older Americans.
But the new findings suggest that staying active could prevent a good deal of this physical decline, according to Dr. Dorothy D. Dunlop, the lead author on the study.
"There's been a myth that people with arthritis shouldn't exercise," Dunlop told Reuters Health. To the contrary, she said, this study provides further evidence of the health benefits of regular activity, even for older people who are not in the best of physical condition.
Often, Dunlop pointed out, people with arthritis have other health conditions as well -- as 88 percent of the men and women in her study did. But exercise, by improving overall physical health, boosting energy and simply making people feel better, may help older adults maintain their physical abilities and independence, according to the researcher.
For their study, Dunlop and her colleagues followed 5,715 adults age 65 and older for two years. At the start of the study, participants were assessed for functional limitations and a range of medical and lifestyle factors, including their exercise habits.
Among those who were free of serious limitations at the outset, about 14 percent saw their physical function decline, the researchers found. The risk of decline was twice as great among men and women who did not exercise regularly -- even when other factors, such as age, co-existing health conditions and other lifestyle habits, were weighed.
The researchers asked participants whether they got "vigorous" exercise, such as playing a sport or doing heavy housework, at least three days a week. The question, Dunlop said, was designed to get at how many people were following the general recommendation for adults to get 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on at least three days out of the week, or 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week.
Those minutes, experts say, need not come all together. And for older people with arthritis, the goal is to "weave physical activity into the daily routine," according to Dunlop. That may mean gardening, walking to the store instead of driving, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
But, she said, it's "always wise" for patients to consult their doctors before taking up any exercise.
Organizations such as the local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, Dunlop noted, may also be able to point older adults to exercise programs in walking, water aerobics or other activities that are specially designed for them.
She and her colleagues estimate that if all of the men and women in their study had gotten regular exercise, it would have prevented one-third of the cases of functional decline.
SOURCE: Arthritis & Rheumatism, April 2005.