Many people with osteoarthritis (OA) in their knees or hips don’t move around enough to loosen up those achy joints or gain the other health benefits of being physically active. Several studies have shown that strength training and aerobic exercise can improve pain, physical function and the general health of people with knee OA. This is great, but for sedentary people who are in pain, the idea of lifting weights or taking a brisk walk may seem like too big a step to take.

What Problem Was Studied?
Because many people hesitate to start or fail to stick to strength training and land-based aerobic exercise programs, health and exercise professionals have been identifying and developing alternative activities that people with OA can do to improve their pain and function. Water’s buoyancy allows easier joint movement and is virtually impact-free, making it an excellent choice for people with painful joints. Tai Chi is an ancient movement practice that consists of slow, continuous movements that incorporates strengthening, balance, posture, relaxation and concentration – all important elements for people with knee or hip OA.

What Was Done in the Study?
A research team in Australia recruited 152 sedentary individuals with painful hip and/or knee OA to participate in a trial that would determine whether water exercise or Tai Chi would alleviate their pain and improve their function. Of the 152 people, 55 were allocated to water exercise classes, 56 were allocated to special “Tai Chi for Arthritis” classes and 41 were put on a waiting list and acted as the control group. Participants were required to attend classes for one hour, twice a week for 12 weeks. Assessments of the participants’ pain and physical function were made before the beginning of the trial (pretreatment), after the 12 weeks’ of classes (post-treatment) and again 12 weeks after the end of the classes (follow-up).

What Were the Study Results?
Both the hydrotherapy and Tai Chi groups showed significant improvements in pain and function. These improvements were generally sustained for three additional months after the end of the classes. The water exercises classes were better attended than the Tai Chi classes, and more of the participants in the Tai Chi group dropped out of the study.

What Does This Mean for People With OA?
Marlene Fransen, MPH, PhD, the study’s lead investigator, concludes “This study demonstrated that access to 12 weeks of intensive water exercise classes or this disease-specific form of Tai Chi for fairly sedentary older individuals (>59 years of age) with chronic symptomatic knee or hip OA resulted in clinical benefits that were sustained a further 12 weeks.” She goes on to specify, “Hydrotherapy classes appeared to provide greater relief of joint pain, and resulted in larger improvements in measures of physical performance, however this result may be mostly explained by the greater acceptability and attendance of the hydrotherapy classes in this Caucasian sample of patients.”

Learn more about exercise programs offered by your local Arthritis Foundation office, including water exercise and Tai Chi classes.

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