exercise as arthritis physical therapy

Too Few People With Arthritis Try the Top Recommended Therapy: Physical Activity

Physical exercise is recommended as the first approach for relief of arthritis symptoms, yet many people do not participate in regular physical activity. New research suggests that doctors and other health care professionals who treat people with arthritis are doing a better job at counseling them on physical exercise, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

A study published recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of people with arthritis who said they were counseled by a health care professional about doing exercise to improve arthritis symptoms increased by 18 percent between 2002 and 2014, from 52 percent to 61 percent. But that means that approximately 40 percent of people with arthritis who seek medical care still are not getting appropriate counseling at their medical visits. The findings appeared in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), published by the CDC.

“The good news is that the rate of counseling has improved, but on the other hand, another 40 percent of people are not getting the counseling that they need,” says lead study author Jennifer Hootman, PhD, in the Division of Population Health at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC.

It is important for health care professionals to improve the rate of counseling on physical exercise, she says, but patients also can make efforts to increase their physical activity.

What Can Patients Do?

“We believe that the level of physical activity should be included in a checklist as a vital sign, like blood pressure or heart rate. Doctors should ask about function, pain and physical activity,” Hootman says. “Although just having a doctor ask a patient about exercise can jump start the motivation to exercise, this may not happen. Patients can take some steps on their own.”

The first step, she says, is for patients to be proactive and ask their doctor about exercise. “People with arthritis usually know that they should be more physically active, but they don’t know the right type of exercise and how much exercise they should do,” says Hootman. People who have arthritis should ask their doctors or physical therapists how to start exercising, what kinds of exercises they should do and where they can find community-based exercise programs.

Leigh F. Callahan, PhD, director of the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance (OAAA) and professor at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees. “Patients should ask their doctors about which physical activities are appropriate and what type of exercise would be good,” she says. “Patients may be nervous about starting to exercise without guidance. Physicians may not know that much about the details of which exercises are appropriate, and a physical therapist could be a better source of knowledge.”

Resources for Patients

Both the Arthritis Foundation and the CDC have good online resources for patients who want to get started with physical activity, says Hootman. Callahan agrees: “The exercise programs on the CDC website and the Arthritis Foundation website are evidence-based and approved for people with arthritis. They are safe programs that people can be comfortable with.”

At the Arthritis Foundation website, people can search the Arthritis Resource Finder for local senior centers, community-based centers and other facilities that offer exercise programs. The Arthritis Foundation also provides self-guided exercise programs, including Walk with Ease and Your Exercise Solution.

Both Callahan and Hootman were involved in developing the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk with Ease program, which can be done in a group-led program or on one’s own. It includes a workbook that guides people through such things as footwear, ways to start exercising gradually, navigating barriers to exercise, motivational tools and tracking with self-assessment questionnaires. At www.CDC.gov/arthritis, click on “interventions” to bring up a link to a list of approved exercise programs in several states. This list is updated regularly. OAAA’s website offers resources for people with osteoarthritis and health care professionals, including weight management and physical activity information and community-based organizations.

All experts are on the same page about the benefits of exercise for people with arthritis. But if a patient isn’t counseled by a health care provider, he or she should take the initiative to raise the subject and/or explore available resources to get started on the road to better health.

Author: Alice Goodman 

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