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Ancient Exercises Keep People With Arthritis Moving

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"A lot of these people don't have bikes at home, or equipment. They don't belong to gyms, and they don't want to go for a walk by themselves," says Hartman. "The group bonding was very important."

David Karp, MD, PhD, says that dozens of studies have shown the benefits of appropriate exercise programs for any patient with arthritis, not only in treating the disease itself but also for improving cardiovascular function, stamina, and overall sense of well-being.

"T'ai chi helps with all of these and also with balance and to promote better body mechanics," says Karp, who is an assistant professor of immunology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He says it especially aids in strengthening the muscles in the front of the knee, increasing how much walking is possible and lessening pain at night.

"The problem is that most studies are three months to a year [long], and as soon as the study is over, the people revert to their bad habits and stop doing the exercises," Karp tells WebMD.

He concurs with Hartman that it improves socialization. "You get arthritic and get a housebound mindset," he says.

Karp says that his 81-year-old mother-in-law studied t'ai chi in China for two weeks and came back feeling wonderful. But he cautions, "They were doing it eight hours a day. You have to be willing to put in the time."

He says that many major community centers have exercise and swimming programs aimed specifically at those with arthritis, and the Arthritis Foundation has a series called PACE -- People with Arthritis Can Exercise.

"The care of a patient with arthritis is a much more global effort. Giving medication is only part of it," advises Karp. "Medication should be the last part of treatment. Losing weight, [proper] diet, and exercise are much more important in helping them remain mobile. Once you limit your mobility, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It is recommended that patients consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise program.

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