Can community walking programmes help people with arthritis?

A couple in the countryside walking and looking at scenery.

The benefits of moving more for our physical and mental health are undisputed. Staying active is even more important for people with arthritis, as regular exercise keeps the joints moving and muscles and bones strong, easing stiffness and helping us maintain a healthy weight.

But when you're dealing with daily pain and fatigue, are fearful of doing further damage to your joints and are lacking in confidence about how to exercise safely, understandably keeping active can feel like a real challenge.

That’s why researchers at the University of Aberdeen are exploring if a successful US community walking programme designed specifically for people with arthritis could be exported to the UK.

Walk with Ease

The Walk with Ease programme has been running for almost a decade across America. Its proven positive impact on the health and well-being of people with arthritis has led to greater investment and expansion of the programme. Dr Kathryn Martin, Lecturer in Epidemiology at the University of Aberdeen, leads a research programme focusing on physical activity, arthritis and ageing. Her team is conducting a study to test if Walk with Ease could be as effective here in the UK, in the hope of rolling out the programme across the country.

Dr Martin says: "Walking is a safe, easy and inexpensive activity that can help most adults to keep active. But there are barriers preventing people with arthritis from getting the health benefits of walking, which Walk with Ease is designed to overcome."

Walk with Ease gives people with arthritis the opportunity to follow a six-week programme, choosing either to walk on their own or as part of a community walking group. Everyone taking part is given a pedometer and a guidebook to inform and motivate them throughout the six weeks and beyond. The guidebook is full of advice and practical tips designed to answer frequently asked questions, as well as outlining a five-point walking plan including warm up, cool down and stretches.

One hundred and forty-nine people across Aberdeen were recruited to take part in the study during summer 2017 and were split into different groups:

  • A third of people taking part followed the self-directed walking programme.
  • A third joined one of five instructor-led walking groups.
  • A third continued with their current level of exercise.

Walking groups or going it alone

Dr Martin explains: "The different approaches help to ensure everyone with arthritis can access Walk with Ease. Some people like the idea of joining a walking group and others prefer to do things independently. The self-directed option is more flexible, so it can work better for people with jobs and family commitments.

"Both approaches have similar health benefits, but the community walking groups offer that extra element of camaraderie and motivation, allowing people to get out and walk with others who understand what it’s like to have arthritis."I was actually quite negative going into the Walk with Ease programme. I felt that nothing was going to work. But how wrong was I? I really enjoyed the programme, I was relaxed and made to feel at ease by the walking coordinator."Walk with Ease study participant

"Walk with Ease really helps people who need that extra support, who haven’t been as active as they’d like to be and just don’t know where to begin. The materials talk about how to manage common symptoms like pain, fatigue and stiffness and encourage people to be aware of how their bodies feel before and after walking.

"People sometimes start too ambitiously, for example starting with a two-hour walk which makes them feel bad the next day, so they give up. By encouraging people to monitor and be aware of how their bodies respond to walking we can help them to gradually increase their activity in a safe manner and prevent setbacks."

The researchers are currently following up with everyone who took part. Their feedback, gathered through one-to-one interviews and questionnaires, will inform what happens next with Walk with Ease here in the UK. Dr Martin says: "We’re still analysing the feedback, but the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Even people who were initially sceptical found the programme had real benefits.

"People told us they not only felt better physically, but also more confident and motivated to exercise. Months later people are reporting still going out for a walk on their own and keeping up their steps diary and some of the groups we set up are still meeting and walking together.

"Our findings will help to develop Walk with Ease for people with arthritis in the UK. We’d like to work with partner organisations to slot this programme into existing networks of walking groups, making them more arthritis-friendly.

"By breaking down barriers like lack of confidence, having no one to walk with or fears about exercising safely we hope to help more people with arthritis to experience the many benefits walking can bring."

This project (Grant 21414) is funded by, and developed in collaboration between, Versus Arthritis and Pfizer Limited.

Scotland steps out for health walks

A partnership between our team in Scotland and Paths for All, a charity championing walking for everyone, has led to seven walking groups for people with arthritis and other long-term conditions being set up across Scotland.

The free Stepping Out health walks are designed to create a supportive environment for people to start enjoying the benefits of exercise. Janette Lee is one of the volunteer walk leaders. For two years, she's led a group that walks twice a month in Eglinton Country Park in Ayrshire. Janette says:

"There are 10–15 of us that meet every other Thursday for an hour’s walk around the park. We pace ourselves according to who's there so the distance we cover varies, but it’s always sociable, relaxed and a great opportunity to get out of the house and get some exercise.

"We get lots of positive feedback, our walkers really appreciate the company and being out in the fresh air, enjoying the seasons. Although some do find the walk a challenge some days, we're there to encourage and support them and afterwards they’re always glad they made the effort."

To find a health walk near you, visit www.pathsforall.org.uk