Osteoarthritis, also known as a wear-and-tear arthritis, occurs when the cartilage at the ends of your bones begins to break down over time. It is the most common version of arthritis, affecting nearly 27 million Americans age 25 and older according to the US National Institute of Health. We in the physical therapy community often work with people with osteoarthris, focusing heavily on improving mobility and strength and educating our patients on joint protection and body mechanics. As a PT, it’s also important for me to educate patients on the importance of remaining active and some very recent research supports this concept.
A new study published this week in Arthritis Care & Research suggests that walking about an hour a day or a total of 6,000 steps can lessen the severity of knee osteoarthritis and help prevent disability. The study tracked the number of steps taken over a week by adults who were at risk for knee arthritis or already had it. Two years later, the researchers assessed the 1,800 participants for any arthritis-related limitations and found that for every 1,000 steps taken, participants’ functional limitations were reduced by 16 to 18 percent. The study’s authors also found 6,000 steps was the critical threshold that predicted who would go on to develop disabilities or not. According to the study’s author, Daniel White, a research assistant professor in the department of physical therapy and athletic training at Boston University, every step a person takes during the day counts towards that critical threshold; in other words, the steps did not have to all be taken at the same time. While the 6,000 steps per day is considerably less than what is recommended for good health, the study’s authors were looking for the fewest number of steps that would help arthritis patients remain mobile.
It is extremely common to hear patients with arthritis complain that they can’t exercise because of their pain levels but it’s important to realize that the less a person moves, the weaker their muscles become, which can lead to potential instability in their joints. The good news is that the amount of activity needed to help keep disability at bay may be less than we previously thought and can be spread out throughout your day. So if you’re dealing with knee arthritis, it may be time to lace up those walking shoes and monitor your steps with a pedometer or smart phone app.