Workers with arthritis struggle to incorporate physical activity: study

IWH research suggests employers can help workers with arthritis make exercise part of daily routine

Published: May 6, 2014

Mark, 56, is well aware of the benefits of physical activity for people like him with arthritis. However, as a father, husband and full-time labour relations officer, he rarely has the energy at the end of a work day to devote to exercise.

I have long hours, says Mark, who has osteoarthritis. So it’s sort of playing in that world [of employment] and yet dealing with this [arthritis]. Anyway, with all the stuff that I have to do to keep myself prepped up to go to work every day, I usually come home and sleep—that’s it.

Mark is typical of the workers with arthritis who took part in focus groups as part of a study led by Dr. Monique Gignac, a senior scientist and associate scientific director at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). They pointed to the fatigue that resulted from juggling the demands of arthritis, employment and personal life as an important barrier to physical activity, says Gignac, also affiliated with the Arthritis Community Research and Evaluation Unit at the Toronto Western Research Institute. For many, arthritis threatened their ability to hang on to their jobs, so jobs were given priority over exercise when it came time to deciding where to put their energy.

Gignac’s study looked into the relationships between arthritis, work and personal life roles (see the article in At Work, Winter 2013). One of the themes that emerged from that larger study was the role of physical activity in the lives of workers with arthritis. This theme was taken up by Simone Kaptein, a postdoctoral student working with Gignac. She and the study team published the findings on exercise last July (see Arthritis Care & Research, Vol. 65, No. 7; doi 10.1002/ acr.21957).

Aware of, but uncertain about, benefits of exercise

Research has shown that people with arthritis who engage in regular physical activity or exercise report fewer limitations in their day-to-day lives. Yet other studies show that the majority of adults with arthritis are either sedentary or not active enough to positively affect their health.

As part of the larger study on managing work, life and arthritis, Kaptein and Gignac explored the role of physical activity. They led eight focus groups with 24 women and 16 men, ranging in age from 29 to 72 years. All were currently or recently employed (within the previous two years) and had osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis.

Gignac points to a number of key findings with respect to physical activity and work. For one, almost all participants recognized the importance of physical activity to their health, well-being and ability to keep working.

This is not an awareness problem, but an implementation problem with respect to how to incorporate it in their lives, Gignac says. People’s need to juggle various roles often left them in a state of fatigue, in which case physical activity became discretionary compared to essential roles such as work and family.

Gignac noted with interest that some people tried to incorporate physical activity through work itself.

Many people valued the physical activity they got in the workplace, as well as active commuting, like walking to work, she says. Given the increased focus on how workplaces can help people with arthritis stay on the job, incorporating ways to remain physically active at work may be a novel way for workplaces to improve the quality of life of people with arthritis and help them address their role priorities.

She’s not saying that employers should give workers with arthritis unlimited hours off during the work day to go to a gym. It’s about encouraging people to move, like walk from one end of the office to another to deliver documents, or take the stairs from one floor to another to attend a meeting— things like that, Gignac says.

Despite being aware of the benefits of exercise, many participants remained uncertain about whether physical activity was good or bad for them, especially given the episodic and unpredictable nature of arthritis pain.

When in pain, they wondered if they should hunker down at their desks and work through it, or try and get some exercise to help alleviate it, says Gignac. They just didn’t know if physical activity would make things better or worse, or what activities they should do or for how long.

Their uncertainty was tied to their fear of jeopardizing their ability to work. The last thing study participants needed was to have to take time away from their jobs, which was their first priority, says Gignac.

We need to find ways to help working adults with arthritis tailor their physical activity in light of changing pain, energy and fears of exacerbating their symptoms.

The Arthritis Society has resources on exercise and arthritis, including a guide to physical activity and a printable information sheet showing exercises that can easily be done at a desk or during a work break.