Virtual exercise program can be safe for people with osteoarthritis, research finds

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New research presented this week in ACR Convergence, the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, finds that a virtual exercise program can be safe for people with musculoskeletal conditions, improve their health outcomes, and help them feel more socially connected, an important benefit during A pandemic when many people choose to avoid in-person exercise classes (Summary #1451).

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common musculoskeletal condition, which causes pain, limited movement and loss of physical function, which may affect an individual’s quality of life. Arthritis most often occurs in middle age in older individuals. It is commonly referred to as “wear and tear” of joints, but we now know that arthritis is a disease that affects the entire joint, involving the cartilage, joint lining, ligaments, and bones. The development and evolution of OA can be influenced by genetics, mechanical stress, body weight, diet, and physical activity.

About 26% of adults in the United States are not physically active, and this is more common among people 65 years of age or older. Approximately 75% of older adults have a musculoskeletal condition, and when combined with a lack of physical activity, they are more likely to have poor health outcomes, such as reduced pain tolerance, muscle weakness, and joint stiffness. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another wrinkle: Older people who stayed home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus may have felt socially isolated and less likely to get the exercise they needed at local gyms or classrooms. To reach these seniors, the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) shifted its Pilates, yoga and tai chi exercise programs from the site to the virtual platform Zoom in March 2020. This study measured health outcomes and social connectedness for seniors who participated.

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The pandemic has disrupted many aspects of daily life, such as engaging in physical activity and interacting with friends and family. Unfortunately, it was the elderly who were most exposed to greater health risks during this period, resulting in a possible deterioration in musculoskeletal conditions and emotional distress. Healthcare delivery is constantly changing, but due to the effects of the lockdown, there has been a need to quickly adapt virtual programming, especially for vulnerable older adults. We need to know if virtual exercise classes are effective for seniors, because they provide continuous access to these services, keep them physically active from the comfort of their homes, and reduce isolation.”

Titilayo Ologhobo, MPH, Director of Outcomes and Data Analytics at HSS and study author

All classes were 60 minutes long and at a low intensity. Participants were able to talk and socialize before starting the guided exercises. The researchers evaluated the programs’ effectiveness based on online surveys before and after the course. They assessed participants’ social demographics, as well as self-reported health outcomes such as pain intensity, pain intervention in daily life, physical function, rigidity, fatigue, physical activity, and self-efficacy.

Virtual exercise programs reached 6,779 people. Of the 355 people evaluated, 161 self-reported musculoskeletal conditions were predominantly female, 60 years or older, and white. Overall, these participants reported a 5% reduction in pain intensity, a 7% reduction in pain interference in their ability to walk, an 8% reduction in fatigue, and a 5% reduction in joint stiffness with each hypothetical six-week exercise session.

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People who participated in online training sessions frequently had improved pain, fatigue, and stiffness and improved ability to carry out their daily activities. 33 people who participated in virtual exercise classes at least twice a week reported an 11% reduction in pain intensity, a 12% reduction in stiffness, a 9% reduction in fatigue and reduced pain interference in all aspects of daily life, including general. Activity levels, mood, ability to walk, normal functioning, relationships with others, sleep and enjoyment of life with each six-week virtual session.

“Amid the uncertainties caused by the pandemic, the shift to default programming has provided older people with musculoskeletal diseases with consistently access to effective community programs and reduced the negative impact of isolation,” says Ms. Ologobo. “Implementation of online virtual exercise programs can be successful when you assess the needs of your target audience, consider potential barriers to program participation, and design virtual programs to meet the specific needs of patients.”
Author’s note: The data in this press release has been updated since the abstract was first accepted into ACR Convergence.


American College of Rheumatology


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