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Arthritis Patients Suffer More in Winter, What To Do


For people with arthritis, the winter months can be a difficult time, especially for those who can’t get out of the house for regular physical exercise. A new study of Chicagoans with arthritis found that the decline in daylight hours even more than winter weather was the reason for their lack of activity.

Arthritis sufferers need to keep moving in the winter

Less than 22 minutes per day: that’s the amount of moderate intensity aerobic exercise recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services for adults. If you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, daily exercise is especially important, because remaining sedentary can have serious health consequences, including increasing disability.

But the long, cold winter months, like those in northern climes around Chicago, can make it difficult for older, low-income individuals with arthritis, to have access to exercise opportunities. At Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, investigators studied the impact of the weather on this population of patients.

Researchers used an accelerometer (similar to a pedometer) to track the physical activity of nearly 250 adults who had either rheumatoid arthritis or knee osteoarthritis. Data were gathered during a three year period and during waking hours, up to six times a week, at three to six month intervals, and across all types of weather.

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Although the study participants tended to stay inside and remain inactive during weather extremes (colder than 20 degrees or hotter than 75), the amount of daylight hours had a more significant impact on their exercise. Joe Feinglass, one of the study’s authors and a research professor of medicine at Northwestern, noted “There’s more than a three-hour difference in the amount of completely sedentary time each day, where people are just sitting around doing nothing, during the months with less daylight, such as November, versus June.”

For low and moderate income older adults, gym memberships and expensive exercise programs are out of the question, while transportation and safety concerns can also be factors that hinder their ability to get sufficient exercise in winter months. Feinglass pointed out that “We need to design more public access opportunities for older people to be more physically active indoors, in the winter.”

What can arthritis sufferers do now during the winter months? Some possibilities include (always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program):

  • Get together with other arthritis patients (or people without arthritis) in the apartment building or immediate vicinity (block or neighborhood) and walk together on days that are less extreme
  • Do yoga exercises at home on days unsuitable for walking. Yoga DVDs can be borrowed from a library or purchased, and some areas have yoga shows on TV
  • Exercise along with an aerobic tape or DVD at home
  • Exercise while watching your favorite TV shows. Get up and walk around the room, jog in place, do standing leg lifts, march in place while holding light hand weights. If you exercise just during the commercials during a one-hour show, you will get nearly all of your daily exercise
  • If there are stairs in your home or apartment building, climb them for 5 minutes or more, followed by walking around your house or jogging or marching in place
  • Look for an inexpensive or donated exercise bike. Ask family and friends if they have one they are not using
  • Contact your local Arthritis Foundation for information about any exercise programs it offers in your area

Winter can be a tough time to exercise outdoors, especially if you have arthritis, but avoiding exercise can make your arthritis and mobility worse. Be creative and make efforts to keep moving during those shorter, colder winter days while you look forward to spring.

Feinglass J et al. Journal of Physical Activity and Health 2011; 8(7): 934-43

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons