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Exercise Is Undervalued in Treating Arthritis

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
July 16, 2004

Despite the stiffness and swelling that accompany rheumatoid arthritis, a regimen of regular physical activity and nutrient-conscious eating will improve physical function and help stabilize weight, according to results from a study funded by the Agricultural Research Service.

Among healthy people, young and old, a lack of regular exercise and nutritious eating is often hard to detect. But for people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, the effects are more obvious on a daily basis.

Twenty healthy women and 20 women with rheumatoid arthritis, all of similar weight and size, were studied. Their total energy expenditures, as well as energy expended during rest and during exercise, were measured or estimated. These three measures make up the three major components of the energy balance equation.

Nutritionist Susan Roberts, rheumatologist Ronenn Roubenoff and colleagues conducted the study. Roberts is director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. Roubenoff has a visiting appointment with the HNRCA.

The researchers found that in women with rheumatoid arthritis, low energy expenditure due to lack of physical activity was directly linked to lower overall total energy expenditure.

The study results helped answer a question prompted by several earlier findings. People with rheumatoid arthritis burn more calories while at rest, experience muscle wasting and have low body-cell mass (which increases fat mass). Should women with rheumatoid arthritis eat more to make up for their accelerated resting metabolisms? The answer is "no," because their natural tendency to be less active reduces their caloric needs.

The researchers concluded that those with rheumatoid arthritis should incorporate physical activity into their lives to boost their total energy expenditure throughout the course of a day. Also, they should moderate their caloric intake by consuming nutrient-rich diets. The HNRCA study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Read more about this research in the July issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.