Adults who have heart disease are significantly less likely to be active if they also have arthritis, according to the results of a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Exercise is one of the most important things people with heart disease can do to prevent a serious cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke; but when arthritis is also in the picture, as it is in 57 percent of adults with heart disease, according to the CDC report, sore joints often keep people from getting off the couch.

“Unfortunately, many people living with both arthritis and heart disease seldom or never exercise because they may be unsure about which activities are safe and worry about aggravating their joint or heart problems,” says Janet Collins, PhD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “These fears are readily addressed by good information, consultation with their doctor, evidence-based programs, and strong social support.”

For the study, which was published in the February 27, 2009, issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers surveyed nearly 800,000 adults in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands in 2005 and then again in 2007.

Respondents to the survey were asked if a doctor or other health professional had ever told them if they had heart disease, a heart attack or angina; they were also asked if a doctor or other health professional had ever told them they had some form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus or fibromyalgia.

The results indicated that arthritis affected 57.4 percent of adults with heart disease as compared to 27.4 percent of adults in the general population. 

Previous research has demonstrated that the body-wide inflammation that makes joints sore and stiff in many kinds of arthritis may also take a toll on the heart.

People with rheumatoid arthritis, for example, have twice the risk of having a heart attack as someone the same age without the disease.

But researchers say they could not tell, based on the results of this survey, which disease was present first.

"That's the question everybody would like to know," says Chad Helmick, MD, a CDC epidemiologist who co-authored the study. "What comes first? Does one cause the other? Does it make it worse if they happen in a certain sequence, we don't know."

And people who had heart disease and arthritis were 30 percent more likely to be sedentary than if they had heart disease alone.

That's particularly troubling, Dr. Helmick, says, since exercise benefits both conditions.

Being sedentary, Dr. Helmick says, is "not what a cardiologist would tell their patients with heart disease, and it's not what a rheumatologist would tell people with arthritis."