Despite numerous public service campaigns and studies touting the benefits of exercise for people with arthritis, more than 40 percent of those with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, remain inactive, according to a 2012 study published online in the journal Arthritis Care & Research. But the researchers found that up to 65 percent of this extra inactivity is due to two modifiable risk factors, suggesting that more effective public health initiatives could turn the situation around.

“We were surprised they were very inactive,” says the study’s lead author Jungwha “Julia” Lee, PhD, assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Regular, moderate physical activity offers a host of benefits. It helps reduce pain and improve well-being.”

James O’Dell, MD, president of the American College of Rheumatology, or ACR, and chief of rheumatology, vice-chairman and residency program director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, agrees. “The bottom line is activity keeps you healthy,” he says. Physical activity can help shore up joints by strengthening the muscle around them and also combat heart disease, adds Dr. O’Dell, who is not associated with this study.

“The primary reason RA patients have decreased life expectancy is because of increased cardiovascular events. We know from many, many studies how important activity is to decreasing cardiovascular risk factors,” says Dr. O’Dell.