Does a Sedentary Lifestyle Make Arthritis Worse?

Balancing rest and activity is optimal

A sedentary lifestyle means you are sitting or resting most of the time as opposed to moving around as part of regular physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle is not healthy. People with arthritis should try to avoid becoming sedentary. What's the problem with a sedentary lifestyle? How does it make arthritis worse instead of better? How can people living a sedentary lifestyle get out of that rut?

It's a concept that many arthritis patients have trouble with — balancing rest and activity. Many arthritis patients who live with chronic pain find it difficult to avoid the sedentary lifestyle trap. Pain causes a person to become less active, and less activity increases pain. It's truly a vicious cycle.

The sedentary life of a couch potato, man watching TV with feet up
Steven Puetzer / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Sedentary Lifestyle Can Make You Worse

Even among arthritis patients who recognize that a sedentary lifestyle is not optimal, it's hard to discern the right amount of activity. Does it depend on the individual and the severity of their arthritis? Is there such a thing as too much activity, just as there is too little activity? What really is the right balance?

Rheumatologist Scott J. Zashin, MD, explained, "For patients with arthritis, a sedentary lifestyle may actually help patients feel better — at least temporarily. For example, it's not uncommon for a patient with severe arthritis to experience less pain after being in the hospital for a few days. Yet, while there is the short-term relief, in the long run, a sedentary lifestyle may lead to obesity and increased pain in weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips. Also, many patients who are not active are more likely to experience depression which is often associated with increased pain and fatigue."

Physical Activity Has Benefits

Dr. Zashin continued, "Physical activity has many positive attributes, including better sleep, lower body weight, and improved mood — all of which help improve arthritis pain. The right level of exercise and activity does depend on the individual. If a patient tends to have increased pain the day after an activity or exercise, they probably did too much. Physical activity or exercise should always begin gradually to determine what level is best for you."

It is difficult to become more physically active if you have been living a sedentary lifestyle. Consider these tips:

  • Get an exercise partner or buddy to help motivate you.
  • Do you have a dog? If you do, that will help provide motivation to walk and stick with a routine.
  • Join a group exercise program. Look into joining a health club or gym, YMCA or YWCA, or a program sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation.

What Do Study Results Tell Us About Being Sedentary Versus Active With RA?

Many, if not all, studies point to beneficial effects from physical activity for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A study e-published in the August 2015 International Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that higher habitual levels of physical activity may protect bone health in people with rheumatoid arthritis. 

A study, from the October 2015 issue of Arthritis Care and Research, concluded that even light intensity physical activity is associated with lower cardiovascular risk as well as lower disability and disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis. Yet another study, from the February 2015 issue of Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology, concluded that frequent movement is preferable to sedentary behavior for chronic pain conditions. Physical activity improves overall health and reduces disease risk as well as the progression of chronic illnesses.

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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.