Although being physically active is one of the best ways people with osteoarthritis can alleviate pain and improve their ability to get around, a new study shows that people with the joint disease are much more sedentary than previously thought.

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that more than half of women and 40% of men with knee osteoarthritis are basically “couch potatoes,” and not engaging in the physical activity that is vital to their health.

Using a small device called an accelerometer, researchers measured the physical activity of more than 1,000 people aged 49 to 84 with radiographic knee osteoarthritis for one week.

Although federal guidelines recommend that adults with arthritis participate in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, low-impact activity each week (about 20 minutes per day), the study revealed that fewer than one in seven men, and only one in 12 women actually met those guidelines.

Physical activity is essential to optimizing both physical and mental health and can play a vital role in the management of arthritis. Regular physical activity can keep the muscles around affected joints strong, decrease bone loss and may help control joint swelling and pain. Regular activity replenishes lubrication to the cartilage of the joint and reduces stiffness and pain. Exercise also helps to enhance energy and stamina by decreasing fatigue and improving sleep. Exercise can enhance weight loss and promote long-term weight management in those with arthritis who are overweight.

Exercise may offer additional benefits to improving or modifying arthritis. As Dr. Steven Blair, Exercise Epidemiologist and Director of Epidemiology at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas TX notes “Skeletal muscle is the largest organ in the body and is intricately tied with protein turnover and synthesis and many other metabolic and biochemical functions. Activating skeletal muscle has many important health benefits we are only beginning to understand.”

The goals of an exercise program for individuals with arthritis are to: 1) preserve or restore range of motion and flexibility around affected joints, 2) increase muscle strength and endurance, and 3) increase aerobic conditioning to improve mood and decrease health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. The exercise program can be organized around the Exercise Pyramid for Patients with Arthritis, as pictured above.