Arthritis appears to be a major barrier to obese people getting physical activity, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Previous studies have shown that obese adults are less likely than their normal-weight peers to exercise, despite physical activity’s known benefits for weight loss. The new government report finds that obese people with arthritis are 44 percent less likely to be physically active than obese people without arthritis.  

“[The study] makes it very clear that inactivity is a major problem that goes beyond just weight to very common conditions like arthritis and the level of mobility that people have as a result of having arthritis,” says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, Director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management System in Baltimore. Dr. Cheskin was not involved in the study.

The 2011 findings, released in conjunction with the Arthritis Foundation, were timed to coincide with Arthritis Awareness Month in May. Two similar studies from the CDC, released in 2008 and 2009, also implicate arthritis as a barrier to physical activity among adults with diabetes and adults with heart disease.

The latest study, published in the May 20, 2011, edition of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, gathered data from nearly 800,000 people ages 18 and older through phone surveys in 2007 and 2009. Participants were asked if a doctor had ever diagnosed them with some form of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout or lupus. Obesity was defined as having a body mass index (BMI) more than 30. Physical activity was determined by answers to six questions. Among the other findings:

  • 16.9 percent of respondents had obesity only.
  • 17.3 percent of respondents had arthritis only.
  • 9.3 percent of respondents had both obesity and arthritis.
  • 35.6 percent of obese adults had arthritis. Those with arthritis and obesity were most inactive (22.7 percent) compared with those who had arthritis alone (16.1 percent), obesity alone (13.5 percent) or neither condition (9.4 percent.)
  • Women were significantly more likely than men to have both arthritis and obesity or arthritis alone.
  • Older patients had a higher prevalence of both arthritis and obesity and arthritis alone than those younger than age 65.

CDC researchers point out their study data is based on self-reporting and didn’t take activity at work into account.

The report offers a state-by-state break down of obesity, arthritis and inactivity levels that can help states tailor physical activity programs to specific area needs.

“Certain regions of the country – it’s partly cultural and partly weather-related – have higher rates of obesity than others,” Dr. Cheskin explains. “Where the problem seems to be greatest [is] where you really want to do education and prevention programs to try and change people’s diets and physical activity.”

But researchers say obese adults are less likely to follow physical activity recommendations, even if they are educated about them. Dr. Cheskin says this study is a reminder of how difficult it can be for obese patients to get started on a physical activity plan. He recommends starting with low impact activity like walking, swimming and biking and says patients may also want to reach out to medical and fitness experts for some help.  

Kamil Barbour, PhD, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the CDC and one of the co-authors of the study, agrees. “It is very hard for obese adults with arthritis to become physically active. Fortunately, physical activity programs are available in local communities that can help obese adults with arthritis safely engage in activities that can improve their pain, function, and quality of life,” he says.