When arthritis causes pain and fatigue, beginning and sticking with an exercise program can be a challenge. But research confirms that doing so can pay off. 

A study led by Leigh F. Callahan, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., followed 346 patients with an average age of 70 who had self-reported arthritis. Participants were divided into two groups: an intervention group that took part in the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program (formerly known as People with Arthritis Can Exercise, or PACE), which consisted of exercise classes at basic and advanced levels that met for an hour twice weekly for eight weeks, and a control group that was offered the program after eight weeks. 

The researchers measured pain, stiffness and fatigue using visual analog scales, tools that help patients rate the intensity of sensations. Physical function was evaluated by using self-reporting as well as performance-based measures such as lifting weights, and psychosocial outcomes were assessed using four different scales.

The results showed that the intervention group had significant improvements in pain, fatigue, and managing arthritis at eight weeks and maintained improvements in pain and fatigue at six months. Although the program focuses mainly on range-of-motion and low-resistance exercises, a separate analysis found that those completing the program showed increased strength in their upper and lower extremities, indicating that strength training – a minor component of the program – was effective.

“Our findings indicate that the basic eight-week program is a safe program for sedentary older individuals with arthritis to start exercising without exacerbating their symptoms,” the authors conclude, adding that symptoms actually improved. They noted that studies need to be conducted to determine if offering the program more than twice a week and for longer periods leads to additional benefits.

For more information about the Arthritis Foundation exercise program, click here.