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Rural health: Exercise and weight loss are Rx for arthritis pain

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability among Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health and the Arthritis Foundation. One in every six Americans has a form of arthritis.

The surge of aging baby boomers is likely to elevate arthritis as a serious health concern. By 2020, an estimated one of five will be affected.

"Arthritis is a chronic and progressive disease that can be debilitating," says Karen Peters, assistant professor, Illinois Prevention Research Center, University of Illinois, Chicago. "We want to encourage people to focus on primary prevention and lifestyle changes, including exercise and diet."

Arthritis includes more than 100 diseases and conditions. Osteoarthritis is a form that impairs the cartilage and weight-bearing joints of 21 million Americans. It stems from physical stresses, trauma, inflammation and chronic obesity.

Exercise helps maintain joint flexibility and strengthens muscles around the joints. "Staying active is critical," Peters says. "Unfortunately, people associate exercise with pain, and inactivity can worsen symptoms and lead to greater disability."

Swimming, walking, biking and other forms of exercise involving fluid motions are recommended.

Centers for Disease Control funds community-based exercise programs in 12 states for individuals with arthritis. (Contact your state Department of Public Health or local Arthritis Foundation to find out if there's a program near you).

In Illinois, Peters and medical student Sabrina Merchant gathered before-and-after information from participants in these free, eight-week community exercise programs.

"They reported statistically significant reductions in chronic pain and improvements in quality of life and range of motion," Peters says.

These findings are reinforced by a study of 6,000 individuals that indicates the risk of being unable to perform daily tasks later in life doubles for those who don't exercise.

"Regular physical activity will help maintain the ability to live independently as you age," says Dorothy Dunlop, a research associate professor at the Institute for Healthcare Research at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

"Farmers don't normally think they need to exercise, but often the type of activity they do isn't beneficial for helping to manage arthritis," says Paul Jones, manager, Purdue University, Breaking New Ground Resource Center.

Weight control also is an emerging self-help strategy. A study in the January 2005 issue of Osteoarthritis and Cartilage offers evidence that combining modest weight loss and exercise can dramatically reduce chronic pain from knee osteoarthritis and increase mobility.

Eighty obese participants (average age 62) with knee osteoarthritis participated in an eight-week exercise-and-diet program, resulting in a rapid 10% weight loss.

This finding is supported by The Arthritis, Diet and Activity Promotion Trial (ADAPT), a study that focused on overweight osteoarthritis patients over age 60.

Other research shows that people with arthritis in one knee who lose weight can reduce the chances of arthritis in the other knee.

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability among Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health and the Arthritis Foundation. One in every six Americans has a form of arthritis.

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