You can walk your way to less disability, reduced arthritis pain and increased balance and strength by taking part in a six-week walking program developed by the Arthritis Foundation, according to a recent study published online in Arthritis Care and Research.

The study evaluated the effectiveness of Walk With Ease, or WWE, a community-based walking program that works to motivate people to be physically active by focusing on strategies to help them meet goals, monitor their progress and take advantage of social support.

“I think why many people don’t walk with arthritis is they are concerned they will make their arthritis worse,” says lead author Leigh F. Callahan, PhD, a professor of medicine and social medicine at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study looked at 462 people with arthritis who were recruited from 33 sites around North Carolina including churches, senior centers and community centers. Participants were asked to choose between two forms of the program; about 40 percent chose to be part of an instructor-led walking class that met three times a week for an hour, and nearly 60 percent opted to do a self-directed version that offered the Walk with Ease (Arthritis Foundation, 2009) workbook as a guide.

Researchers assessed the physical function of participants at the start of the program and after six weeks using five tests, including getting up from a chair, standing on one leg and stepping in place for two minutes. Participants in both groups reported modest to moderate improvement in their disability as well as in pain, fatigue, stiffness and helplessness scores. There were no reports of adverse effects.

“What we did that was unique was we had independent walkers – or people that were self-directed – and we showed equivalent findings in improvement in overall symptoms and disability [compared with the walking-class group],” Callahan explains.

Pain levels, for example, dropped in both groups by about eight points on a 100- point scale. “You’re talking about a 20 percent improvement in their pain level. That’s going to make a noticeable difference,” Callahan says.

One year after the study start, participants were still maintaining some of the improvements in their pain levels, especially those in the self-directed group. There were other improvements in self-report measures at one year as well including stiffness, self-efficacy and helplessness – improvements in all those areas were also maintained over one year.