RA, which affects 1.3 million adults, is a painful condition that causes joints to be swollen, stiff, and damaged. Inactivity puts RA patients at risk of increased pain, weakened muscles, poor balance, and stiffened joints. But many people with RA lack the motivation to exercise -- or don’t know that exercise may help them feel better.
For the study, researchers at Northwestern University recruited 176 RA patients ranging in age from 23 to 86. Most of the participants were white, college-educated women over 50 who had had the disease for an average of 13.5 years.
All of the study participants were given an accelerometer, a device that measures the intensity of physical activity. For one week, each participant strapped it to his or her belt first thing in the morning and left it on until bedtime.
The devices can’t distinguish between different activities -- running vs. climbing stairs, for example. Instead, they provide data on when and how long a wearer increases the pace of movement. The researchers looked for spikes in activity that lasted for at least 10 minutes at a time, because that kind of sustained movement indicates moderate to vigorous exercise.
Of the 176 participants, about 2 in 5 logged no upticks in activity at all. According to researcher Jungwha Lee, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, few of the other participants did much better.
“Only about 12% of the group met the recommended fitness guidelines of 150 minutes per week,” Lee says.
Lee says the overall results were expected, but not the extent of complete inactivity. “We had a sense that they were very inactive,” she says. “But we were so surprised that these people were just sitting and doing nothing.”
However, the study’s primary finding -- the reasons for the lack of exercise -- is potentially positive. Nearly two-thirds of the inactivity that Lee and her colleagues measured can be explained by modifiable risk factors.