(dailyRx News) Staying active is a key part of treating rheumatoid arthritis. Exercise keeps your joints and the muscles around your joints healthy, strong and flexible. Exercise also may prevent other complications of arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis patients who exercise more may have a lower risk of blood vessel damage than those who are less physically active.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease. This inflammation is the main reason people with rheumatoid arthritis face a higher risk of heart disease. However, lack of physical activity is also likely to play a role in heart-related problems in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Michael A. Crilly, MD, MPH, of Aberdeen University Medical School, and Anne Wallace, MSCP, MSc, of Robert Gordon University, set out to see if physical activity affected the risk of arterial dysfunction (damage to blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart) in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
They found that patients who reported higher levels of physical activity had lower levels of arterial dysfunction - a condition that is thought to lead to atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. This finding held true regardless of whether patients had other heart- or arthritis-related risks.
As patients exercised more often and intensely, their levels of arterial damage decreased.
"Rheumatoid arthritis is not only a potentially disabling condition, but it also increases heart disease risk by about 50 percent compared to the general population," said Sarah Samaan, MD, a cardiologist with Legacy Heart Center and co-director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Institute at the Baylor Heart Hospital.
"Anything we can do to lower that risk can make a real difference in many people's lives," she said.
To measure arterial dysfunction, the researchers used the augmentation index. A higher percentage on this index is a sign of greater arterial dysfunction, or damage to the arteries. Levels of physical activity were measured with a questionnaire that included the Godin physical activity score.
Before taking into account other risks of arterial damage, the researchers found that a 10 point increase in the Godin physical activity score was associated with a 0.9 percent decrease on the augmentation index.
After accounting for additional risks, higher levels of physical activity were still associated with lower levels of arterial damage. More specifically, a 10 point increase in the physical activity score was associated with a 0.5 percent decrease on the augmentation index.
"We know that exercise improves the health of our arteries, and makes the cardiovascular system more resistant to the effects of stress," said Dr. Samaan, who was not involved in the study.
"It also reduces inflammation in the blood vessels of the heart and other organ systems. It's great to know that something as simple, inexpensive, and generally safe as exercise has the potential to substantially improve heart health in people with rheumatoid arthritis," she said.
"Although exercise may seem daunting for people living with rheumatoid arthritis, many of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis make exercise a part of their daily lives. These are people who often stay much healthier, and enjoy a much better quality of life, than those who are more sedentary. Of course, anyone with rheumatoid arthritis should check with their rheumatologist or primary physician before starting a serious exercise program," she noted.
According to the study's authors, more research is needed to show that increasing physical activity may improve arterial dysfunction in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
The study included 114 rheumatoid arthritis patients between 40 and 65 years of age who were free of arterial dysfunction at the beginning of the study. The majority of participants (82 percent) were women.
The research was published July 28 in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology.