Osteoarthritis: How Much Exercise Is Necessary to Stave Off Disability?

man exercising on elliptical in gym
man exercising on elliptical in gym
Researchers set out to identify a threshold for activity in adults with lower extremity joint symptoms. We review their findings.

Federal guidelines recommend that individuals with osteoarthritis (OA) spend 150 minutes a week on moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity.1 However, that level of activity can be daunting for patients experiencing pain in their lower extremity joints.

Study Examines Weekly Exercise Threshold

Researchers aimed to identify a threshold for activity in adults with lower extremity joint symptoms. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.2

“Our goal was to see what kind of activity would help people remain free of disability,” said lead author Dorothy D. Dunlop, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.3

To that end, the investigators analyzed 4 years of data from 1564 adults aged ≥49 years who were at elevated risk for disability. All participants had experienced pain, aching, or stiffness in lower extremity joints from OA but were free of disability at the outset.2

Predicting Disability-Free Status

The researchers found that approximately 1 hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every week significantly increased the probability of staving off disability in OA. The weekly hour of activity reduced the risk of mobility disability (such as walking too slowly to safely cross the street before a traffic signal change) by 85%. It also reduced the risk of daily living disability (such as difficulty bathing and dressing) by nearly 45%.

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Conversely, 24% of adults who did not perform 1 hour of brisk physical activity were unable to safely cross the street, and 23% reported difficulties with their morning routine.

Motivating Inactive Older Adults

The investigators are hopeful that their findings will help encourage adults with OA to adopt a more active lifestyle. “We hope this new public health finding will motivate an intermediate physical activity goal,” said Dr Dunlop. “One hour a week is a stepping stone for people who are currently inactive. People can start to work toward that.”3


  1. Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2018. Accessed August 19, 2019.
  2. Dunlop DD, Song J, Hootman JM, et al. One hour a week: moving to prevent disability in adults with lower extremity joint symptoms. Am J Prev Med. 2019;56(5):664-672.
  3. Paul M. Just an hour of weekly walking staves off disability. Northwestern Now. April 1, 2019. Accessed August 19, 2019.