Is It Better to Exercise or Rest?

People who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) experience pain — that’s a given. But fatigue is also a major complication of RA. And because RA makes people tired, the standard advice has been that they get a lot of rest. But a new study indicates that maybe what they need is not more rest, but more exercise.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, enlisted 96 arthritis patients, mostly in their 50s. They then randomly assigned the participants to one of three groups. The first group — the “education-only” group — received a booklet titled “Be Active Your Way: A Guide for Adults,” and participated in a discussion about simple ways to raise their physical activity.

People in the second group were given a pedometer and a diary in which to record how many steps they were taking each day. Those in the third group also received a pedometer and a step diary, but in addition, they were assigned personalized daily step targets. Specifically, they were encouraged to increase their step count by 10 percent every two weeks. The study lasted 21 weeks; afterward the researchers called the two pedometer groups to collect the information from the step diaries.

At the end of the study, both pedometer groups had increased their daily step count significantly — group two by 87 percent and group three by nearly 160 percent. Both pedometer groups also reported substantial decreases in fatigue levels. The “education-only” group reported no change in activity levels. The reason they reported no change, the researchers say, is that it’s not always effective to tell people that they need more exercise without giving them specific advice on how to do that. Lead researcher Patricia Katz, M.D., notes that using a pedometer can show people how much they sit. It can be a real wake-up call.

Another encouraging finding was that those who took part didn’t report an increase in pain or a rise in RA activity as a result of participating. This was important because many RA patients believe that if they increase their activity levels, they will bring on problems.

The conclusions, the researchers said, might seem counterintuitive. However, as Katz explained, “For years, the recommendation for patients with fatigue was to rest, and that wasn’t really working very well for them. Moving is good for you.”


Joseph Gustaitis is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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