Exercise may help prevent disability from arthritis, and it doesn’t seem to take a whole lot of activity to start reaping that benefit.

People with arthritis are often reluctant to exercise because they fear it will make their condition worse. But new research shows that being active actually improves joint function.

Experts from Northwestern University studied more than 3,500 people in their 50s and 60s with arthritis. They were interested in whether exercise could prevent disability from arthritis.

Those who reported getting the recommended amount of physical activity — at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week — were least likely to become more disabled by arthritis during the study.

But active people who didn’t quite meet the recommended goal benefited nearly as much.

The report by Joe Feinglass, PhD, and colleagues recently appeared in Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Get the Basics About Rheumatoid Arthritis

Take the Activity Test

See how you rate for physical activity, using the researchers’ standards.

First, think about how much time you spend in physical activity. Then, decide whether that activity is moderate (such as walking or golfing) or vigorous (such as running or taking an aerobics class).

Next, see where you fall on this list:

—Less than 10 minutes of daily moderate or vigorous activity

—Less than 30 minutes of daily moderate activity

—Less than three days per week of moderate activity

—Less than 20 minutes of vigorous activity less than three days per week

—At least 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five days per week

—At least 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days per week

Now, check out the results:

—People in the first category are considered inactive.

—Those in the next three categories get an insufficient amount of exercise.

—The last two categories meet recommended levels of physical activity.

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More Activity, Less Disability

Arthritis comes in many forms. Without treatment, it can lead to joint damage and disability.

In 1994 and 1996, Feinglass’ participants reported what, if any, disabilities their arthritis had caused. Those disabilities included trouble with climbing stairs, walking, getting in and out of bed, bathing, and eating or dressing without help.

Then, the researchers matched participants’ reports of physical activity and disability.

The least active people were the most likely to develop more arthritis-related disabilities during the study. Those who were insufficiently active fared better, but not as well as participants who reported getting recommended amounts of exercise.

Disabilities rose by these percentages for each group:

—Inactive: 37 percent increase

—Insufficient: 29 percent increase

—Recommended: 27 percent increase

The study doesn’t prove that exercise prevented arthritis-related disabilities. Active people may have other healthy habits working in their favor, the researchers note.

Consult your doctor before starting a new exercise program.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Feinglass, J. Arthritis & Rheumatism, Dec. 15, 2005; vol 53: pp 879-885. Reuters.