Most of us know that being physically active is important for our overall health and wellbeing. Not only does exercise help to control weight, but it also boosts energy and can help combat health conditions and improve mood. This especially holds true for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disorder of the immune system that affects about 1% of people in the UK. Unlike osteoarthritis or "wear and tear" arthritis which tends to be more common with increasing age, rheumatoid and other types of inflammatory arthritis can start at any age including in young children. Rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint swelling, pain and stiffness and if left untreated, joint damage and disability.
New research presented by Andrew Lemmey from the University of Bangor at the Annual British Society for Rheumatology Conference held last week has highlighted that for people with RA, the problems caused by lack of physical exercise may be even more critical and may cause much more disability than previously thought.
People with RA are often extremely inactive and have significant loss of muscle mass, which Lemmey's study has shown can cause significant disability, even if the arthritis is well controlled. The researchers also estimated, alarmingly, that the average 60-year-old with arthritis had the same functional abilities as a healthy 85-year-old. Clearly this issue has huge implications in terms of individual wellbeing as well as on potential future health and social care costs.
In a busy NHS rheumatology clinic where appointment times may be 15 minutes or less, healthcare providers tend not to give exercise enough emphasis, although they are well aware of the importance of educating people with arthritis about exercise. Finding innovative ways of encouraging people with arthritis to exercise is therefore vital.
Interestingly, a separate study presented at the same conference last week suggested that the time people with RA normally spend sitting in an outpatient waiting area can be used as a great opportunity to educate people with arthritis about exercise, and this area can even be used to try simple exercises, both safely and at minimal cost.
Participants of the study were asked to either walk along a walkway whilst doing exercises illustrated with photographs and instructions via a YouTube video, or to participate in a short stretch sitting exercise programme, aimed at those who were less mobile or who lacked confidence in their ability to exercise when walking. The trial was well received by the majority of participants, who expressed that they would rather exercise than sit and wait for their appointment.
Another innovative study gave people with RA pedometers aimed at increasing their level of physical activity. Such innovations are crucial as they encourage people to lead a more active life, regardless of their health condition.
Starting and maintaining an exercise programme can be quite daunting, even for people without arthritis, and no one knows that better than the health experts at UK charity Arthritis Action, who work with people with all forms of arthritis to develop an individualised self-management and exercise plan to encourage them to lead a more active life with less pain.
Wendy is a Consultant Rheumatologist at North Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and UK Charity Arthritis Action's Medical Advisor.