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Obesity, Arthritis and Exercise

Celeste Hebets, P.T.

When your joints hurt, your natural inclination is to stop moving. This is exactly what you should NOT do, especially if you have arthritis. Arthritis is the most common disease among America’s adult population, and for those who are obese or overweight, the chances of getting arthritis is much greater, especially in the knees.

It is estimated that a force of nearly three to six times a person’s body weight is exerted across the knee while walking. So, someone who weighs 200 pounds is exerting 600-1,200 pounds of force on their knees when they walk. Because of the extreme force placed on the knees, studies have shown obese women are four times more likely to get arthritis of the knees and obese men are five times more likely to get arthritis of the knees.

In women whose body mass index is greater the 25 (which is considered overweight), losing just 11 pounds reduced the risk of knee arthritis by more than 50 percent. Unfortunately, it also goes the other direction – gaining 11 pounds can increase the risk of arthritis by more than 50 percent.
Many people are under the assumption that exercise will cause further pain or damage to achy and stiff joints. The exact opposite is true: a recent study showed that one hour of low-impact exercise, twice a week, actually reduced pain and fatigue and also improved joint function.

Arthritis stiffens the joints and can even immobilize the joint, but exercise keeps the joints moving by increasing flexibility. Exercise also strengthens the muscles which help support the joint. Exercise reduces joint pain because the joints are not as stressed when they have stronger muscles supporting them, allowing the joint to have more flexibility and movement. Exercise also maintains bone strength by helping to preserve and even increase bone density.

Additionally, exercise has so many benefits including increased overall energy throughout the day and it helps to control weight. In fact, exercise can offset the genetic predisposition for obesity. Researchers have found that being genetically predisposed to obesity “had no effect on those with above average physical activity scores.”  So, in addition to helping keep the joints strong and flexible, exercise fends off obesity, even if obesity is genetic and runs in the family!

The American Heart Association recommendation on exercise is at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day. This can be as simple as a brisk 30-minute walk around the block or on a treadmill. Other simple activities include swimming, riding a stationary bike, walking laps around the school track, lifting light weights or doing yoga at home or in a class. 

Exercise can even help make you look and feel younger. Forget the expensive anti-wrinkle creams; save your money and exercise. Studies have shown that regular exercise can shave 10-12 years off of your chronological age!

If these tips don’t help or you feel a better alternative is out there, then bariatric surgery might be the answer for you. If you are considering weight-loss surgery, Flagstaff Medical Center’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center offers free information sessions the second Tuesday of every month from 6 - 7 p.m. These sessions include a presentation by our surgical staff on the causes of and complications related to morbid obesity, as well as the types of surgeries available. To register to attend a free information session, call 928 214-3737. To learn more about the program, visit

Celeste Hebets, P.T., is a physical therapist and coordinator of FMC’s Bariatric Surgical Weight Loss Center. Is there a health topic you’d like to know more about? Please write to Mountain Medicine, c/o FMC Public Relations, 1200 N. Beaver St., Flagstaff, AZ 86001, or visit